`Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.'
From the earliest days of Christianity (and indeed, since the earliest days of religion, period!), women and men have sought understanding in the the large, unpopulated expanses of the earth, far from the madding crowds of urban life. Moses discerned his call from God in the desert wanderings after fleeing Egypt, only to return as the Deliverer; Jesus' first act after baptism was to wander the desert; Mohammed had his desert experience; prophets, sages, wise women and men have always found in the solitude and magnitude of places such as Dakota a spirituality hard to express.
Kathleen Norris, however, does an admirable and enlightening job of putting words to that very ephemeral concept. Combining personal stories with prayerful reflections and mediations, Norris weaves together a book whose riches slowly unfold only for those who give particular attention; however, it yields treasure to even the most cursory of readers, too. Neither Kathleen Norris nor her husband were natives of the land, both having come from vastly different places than the sparsely populated, silent and enigmatic plains. Yet Norris has become a spokeswoman of sorts for the spirituality that is found in a place such as this, the modern equivalent of the early Christian Desert Fathers.
Like those early fathers (alas, not much is recorded about the women who made such decisions in favour of isolation), she has attached both a meditative and monastic framework to her searchings. Being a protestant by upbringing, Norris brings a critical, outsider view to the understanding of monastic practice and the spirituality inherent therein. One of the particular vows of a Benedictine monastic, the variety with which Norris has become most familiar, is the vow of stability--i.e., to remain in one place.
Remaining in one place is important, for in the modern world (as in past times) there is a tendency to see residence in any given place as impermanent and transitory; it is only by becoming wedded to a place that one can get to understand the hidden and secret aspects that are crucial to forming the fabric of life in such places. Dakota is one such place. Those of us who are more urban cultured (and, chances are, 92% of you reading this are urban- or suburban-cultured) tend to regard the plains as empty.
`Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.' - St. Hilary
The Plains have become for Norris, quite simply, her monastery -- her place to be apart and to be set apart, so that she may thrive and grow. There is room to move and grow. There is silence to grow into, without the problem of being caught by the noise and stunted. There is an emptiness to contemplate, to fill, to deplete, and to marvel at as it continues its vast expanse.
How much more of a spiritual awakening can one have than to witness the passing of a storm, seen rolling in from miles away, to fill a vast expansive sky, and then to dissipate, leaving the wideness free again to its original stillness? In the contemplation of such natural events, the wonders of all creation become present.
Of course, Norris points out the advantages of this kind of isolation.
`Living in a town so small that, as one friend puts it, the poets and ministers have to hang out together has its advantages. We raid each other's libraries and sustain decent arguments on matters of science, politics, and religion. ...There is a wariness on both sides: poets and Christians have been at odds with one another, off and on, for two thousand years. There is also trust: we are people who believe in the power of words to effect change in the human heart.'
Norris intersperses weather reports with her narratives and essays -- weather being a crucial and vital elemen to the life of the plains. After all, one might get wisked off to Oz by the upcoming twister. Alas, this happens all to often in spiritual development -- one becomes mesmerised by the storm, the power and awesome force, the elegance, or one becomes terrified; rarely does one have a neutral response. How one responds to the internal storms makes all the difference. One spiritual director of mine used to start our discussions with the 'weather report', by which he meant for me to report simply what is happening spiritually, with a minimum of interpretation (saying a cloud looks like Mickey Mouse may be well and good, but is that cloud just floating by or is it turning into a tornado?).
Life on the plains, life on the farm, is earnestly cyclical, as is the pattern of the rule of monasticism. The cycle is never ending, regardless of any events or crises that may arise--the community carries on, and life carries on, always with the long-term in view. The storm will pass, the seasons will pass, the harvest will come, and come again, and again. And still it all remains.
Thomas Merton wrote:
Love winter when the plant says nothing.
Listen to the stones of the wall
Be silent, they try
To speak your
To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?
Dakota is a place to find the answers. Come find treasures beyond rubies in the empty fullness of Norris' Dakota.