I love Kathleen Norris. I have read four of her books (and she has a new book out - awesome!), and am currently re-reading Dakota. While I don't read much poetry, I love her poet's sensibility as she looks honestly at life and her long, winding path back to God, which speaks to my journey and heart.
In the early 1970s, when I was just out of college, working in New York City and hovering on the fringe of the Andy Warhol scene, a question crept into my consciousness one day, seemingly out of the blue: "What is sin?" I thought I should know, but my mind was blank. I felt like the little boy in The Snow Queen who, as he's being carried off in the Queen's carriage tries desperately to remember the Lord's Prayer but can think of nothing but multiplication tables."What is sin?" It never occurred to me to go to a church for the answer. If the church hadn't taught me in my first twenty years what sin was, it probably never would....But trust in the religious sphere has been hard to come by. Like many Americans of my baby boom generation, I had thought that religion was a constraint that I had overcome by dint of reason, learning, artistic creativity, sexual liberation. Church was for little kids or grandmas, a small-town phenomenon that one grew out of or left behind. It was a shock to realize that, to paraphrase Paul Simon, all the crap I learned in Sunday school was still alive and kicking inside me. I was also astonished to discover how ignorant I was about my own religion. Apart from a few Bible stories and hymns remembered from childhood I had little with which to start to build a mature faith. I was still that child in The Snow Queen, asking "what is sin?" but not knowing how to find out. Fortunately a Benedictine friend provided one answer: "Sin, in the New Testament," he told me, "is the failure to do concrete actions of love." That is something I can live with, a guide in my conversion. It's also a much better definition of sin than I learned as a child: sin is breaking rules.Comprehensible, sensible sin is one of the unexpected gifts I've found in the monastic tradition. The fourth-century monks began to answer a question for me that the human potential movement of the late twentieth century never seemed to address: if I'm O.K. and you're O.K., and our friends (nice people and, like us, markedly middle-class, if a bit bohemian) are O.K., why is the world definitely not O.K.? Blaming others wouldn't do. Only when I began to see the world's ills mirrored in myself did I begin to find an answer; only as I began to address that uncomfortable word, sin, did I see that I was not being handed a load of needless guilt so much as a useful tool for confronting the negative side of human behavior.The desert monks were not moralists concerned that others behave in a proper way so much as people acutely aware of their own weaknesses who tried to see their situation clearly without the distortions of pride, ambition, or anger. They saw sin (what they called bad thoughts) as any impulse that leads us away from paying full atention to who and what we are and what we're doing, any thought or act that interferes with our ability to love God and neighbor. Many desert stories speak of judgment as the worst obstacle for a monk. "Abba Joseph said to Abba Pastor: 'Tell me how I can become a monk.' The elder replied: 'If you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say, "Who am I?" and judge no one.'"One of my favorite monastic stories in this regard concerns a desert monk who is surprised to hear that a gardener in a nearby city has a way of life more pleasing to God than his own. Visiting the city he finds the man selling vegetables, and asks for shelter overnight. The gardener, overcome with joy to be of service, welcomes the monk into his home. While the monk admires the gardener's hospitality and life of prayer, he is disturbed to find that the vulgar songs of drunks can be heard coming from the street, and asks the gardener: "Tell me, what do you conceive in your heart when you hear these things?" The man replies, "That they are all going to the kingdom." The old monk marvels and says, "This is the practice which surpasses my labor of all these years. Forgive me, brother, I have not yet approached this standard." And without eating, he withdraws again into the desert.- Kathleen Norris, Dakota