Words Have Meaning and Matter: Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris

Adirondacks from 87 going south.

“Language used truly, not mere talk, neither propaganda, nor chatter, has real power.” —  Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, (p.9)

Years ago… I was sitting with a friend who I knew from a local meditation center and I blurted out I had gone back to my Catholic religion. Her facial expression changed from pleasant and friendly to a blank, then, to a slightly horrified expression. I felt as if I had just told her I was going back to an abusive relationship. And, maybe in her eyes I did just tell her that. I could see she was trying to say something intelligible; her eyes were blinking and she was holding her cup of herbal tea to her lips. Finally, she spoke. She told me she thought the language of Catholicism and Christianity was horrifying — as her initial facial expression revealed.

I was not sure how to defend my faith back then as I had just gone back to an organized religion known as Catholicism,  and was surprised at my own desire to return to the religion I had left to pursue philosophy, poetry and Buddhism — more rational and more adult subjects. In fact, I was seriously thinking about becoming a Buddhist, but I could not get into the symbolism. The chants were meaningless to me and felt uncomfortable saying. This is not a criticism of Buddhism, but rather my own insight into how deep the images and symbolism of Christianity were within me. They were like my native language. They were with me since birth. My friend’s expression, as I was to find out, was a common response to my sharing anything about religion with most of my friends and family. It seemed to me that I could not get past the language barrier; this is to say, everyone was rejecting the religion based on what they remembered from being a child and experiencing catholic school or faith formation and church; or what they hear and read today from Evangelicals and Fundamentalists and Catholics and anyone else who uses biblical phrases to condemn and shame people.

Admittedly, the words do evoke some scary stuff from when I was a kid. My Catholic upbringing was not one that made much sense to my young brain as my parents could never decide whether they needed to belong to a church, just read the Bible or give up on the whole religious thing once and for all. The only time I remember the church experience opening up for me was when my cousin, who was eight years old, died. Our family went deep into religion for about a two year period. It was a time when we actually went to a monastery and met the most enlightened brothers ever. It seemed to me that God had brought us together as a family. We had stopped fighting with each other, and my Uncle’s family — who were not blood relation — became our family.

But our religion did not hold and I eventually turned to philosophy and literature, and then to Buddhism.

Through meditation and a lot of reading about Buddhism, I found my way back to my religion. Interestingly, what made perfect sense to me seemed to confound most of my friends. I have heard many reasons to justify not having any faith at all, and especially a faith that is attached to a major religion such as Catholicism.

I have been told that there is no need for religion as science provides us with the rational tools to make advancements. I think science has a place in our world, but science cannot on its own help us to love each other and care for each other. Both science and religion can get in the way of making decisions and taking responsibility if we think of them as fixers that can clean up any mess that is made by our lack of care. Our best hope, it seems to me, is each other; how we treat ourselves and our neighbors; and not waiting for some guy in a beard, whether he is in the sky or in a laboratory to come up with a solution that does not demand us to love one another, and the God or mystery that brought us here.

But still, there is the language of Christianity that has left its wounds on our collective psyche. There are words such as sin, repentance, idolatry, heresy… and many more that have been used for years, if not to confuse, shame and oppress people, then to make some people feel they may do whatever it is they wish and then seek forgiveness.

I understand how people can be put off by it. The language is scary, and if it is a language that cannot serve a purpose beyond confusing people or shaming them then it is not worth keeping; I would not want to go back to a religion like that either. I’m not interested in being confused or shamed.

We are, however, fortunate in our time to have many writers sharing not only their experiences with religion, but who have sought to understand what it is we are inheriting.

Book from Public Library

These writers not only interpret biblical texts and delight in the metaphors the texts offer, but they have looked at their own lives and have tried to put the works they have read into action. Their writing breathes life back into what had been badly interpreted and/or is still badly interpreted out of ignorance or malice. They have entered into the texts and have lived to tell about it. One such writer is, Kathleen Norris. I would recommend any of her books, but if you do not want to read all of her work then I am recommending, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

I believe Amazing Grace is one of Kathleen Norris’s best works as it takes on all the scary vocabulary and in no way attempts to soften anything up. She reflects on her own life, and shares a little, but refrains from making it all about her personal experience. Her other books, The Cloister Walk in particular, are in this vein, but Amazing Grace is focused and could be read straight through and also used as a reference.

The pages deliver insight after insight and comprehension that allows the reader to close the door to the rigid, deadly literal meaning of Catholicism’s most important symbols. But she does not go soft and tell us that God is a lucky charm that will protect us from tough decisions and the pain of being a sentient being. She does not tell us God is just what we want God to be. Sin is still sin, and she does not hesitate to tell us that we are all sinners. But, she does not tell us that we are sinners because of who we choose to love or what we do as human beings; there is no detailed list to be found within the pages of her book. There is, however, a deep sense of the sacred.

“To see myself as a sinner is simple enough, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines a sinner as ‘a transgressor against the Divine law.’ If I care to pay attention, which I usually do not, I can find all too many ways in which I transgress regularly against the great commandment, to love God with all my heart and soul, and my neighbor as myself. On a daily basis, I fail to keep the balance that this commandment requires of me: that I love and care for myself, but not so well that I become incapable of loving and serving others; and that I remember to praise God as the author of life itself, but not so blindly that I lose sight of the down-to-earth dimensions of my everyday relationships and commitments.”

As I read through Amazing Grace it felt like a much needed reminder of the poetry that is God.  I knew I needed to confront words I did not understand because in most instances they had become rigid in my mind and left me totally outside of a deeper faith. For instance, idolatry, as Kathleen Norris states is commonly associated with the people of Israel dancing in front of a golden calf, and according to Norris, not much helpful (p.88). I too can remember the golden calf as a child and being told not to make money my idol. Somehow the golden calf and money had converged and what I got out of it was the idea of not letting money rule my life. I figured as long as I was not obsessed with money (whatever that meant), I was safe. That, of course, left me with and infinite amount of obsession regarding other objects I could have since I did not quite feel it necessary to go beyond the literal gold/money symbol.  Amazing Grace opens up the possibilities to endless obsessions, which often disturb the balance of life:

“I began to understand that idolatry was more than the literal worshipping of graven images when I was able to see it in the context of the great commandment that Jesus gives in the gospels, to love God with all your heart and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And all of these loves are interrelated: self-love is nothing if it doesn’t include the love of our neighbor, and of the God who created us all in the divine image. A measure of balance in these objects of our devotion is a safeguard against idolatry, which can give any of the three too much weight. We can love ourselves too much, but we can also love others to a possessive excess. And even religious devotion, which literally means the dedicating or consecrating of oneself by a vow, can become an idol. We can become so focused on our love of God that we demean other people in the process.” (p88-89)

Norris gives a new suppleness to old symbols that had become rigid and useless to those of us seeking meaningful language.  When the world hums with distractions, and too easily our politicians and business leaders declare truth as a commodity or as simply not existing outside of the realm of our own small egos, it is our spirituality, ironically, that can bring us back down to earth.

April 6th after Good Friday mass. The moon from my front porch.

Kathleen Norris does not wish to bring us back to the dark ages, and neither is she a new age mystic telling us all it is all good. If anything, she is real and seeks truth within the real.

Norris Kathleen, Amazing Grace. Riverhead Books, Penguin Putnam inc., New York, NY: 1998.

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