I've been slowly working my way through Kathleen Norris'
A Vocabulary of Faith.
Her book The
Cloister Walk is one of my very favorite religious
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography offers engaging meditations on place, spirituality, and small-town life.
I often carry my pocket copy of
The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work
in my purse for re-reading. And I
also really like her poems. So I expected to like this book --
and I do, though it's more like a collection of little bite-sized
chocolates than it is a full literary meal. It lends itself to
being read in bits and pieces, which is helpful, since that's the kind of time I've currently got!
Anyway, in the chapter called "Belief, Doubt, and Sacred
Ambiguity," Norris says a lot of things that really resonate for me. Here's a taste of the story at that chapter's heart:
When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey where I am now
an oblate, I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with
my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over
Christianity. What interested them more was my desire to come to
their worship, the liturgy of the hours. I was a bit disappointed --
I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith
and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated
that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive
and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful
to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They
seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship,
kept coming home, things would eventually fall into place.
This passage charms me because it rings so true. I know a lot of
people who might say, as Norris did, that doubts and intellectual
frustrations distance them from religion; and I also know a lot
of people who might respond, as the monks did, that doubt is no
problem at all, and that the way to deal with doubt is to keep
practicing. Regular prayer can effect subtle and thorough changes,
but the only way to understand that is to take the leap of beginning
Later, Norris writes,
If I had to find one word to describe how belief came to take hold
in me, it would be "repetition." Repetition as Kierkegaard
understood it, as "the daily bread of life that satisfies with
benediction." Repetition as in a hymn such as "Amazing Grace," or
the ballade form, in poetry, where although the refrain is the same
from stanza to stanza, it conveys something different each time it
is repeated because of what is in the lines that have come in between.
The more I inhabit Jewish liturgy, the more I understand
what Norris is talking about here. (Clearly this is true of
liturgy qua liturgy, not merely hers or ours or anyone else's.)
There's something in the repetition of words that invests both
the words, and the silences between them, with new meaning. Later
in this same passage, Norris notes that weekly church attendance
came, in time, to shape the days between Sundays in much the way
that a repeated poetic refrain shapes the feel of a poem. I know
She tells the story of a seminary student arguing with an Orthodox
theologian at Yale Divinity School. The student asked what to do
when he couldn't affirm certain tenets of the Creed; the theologian
responded, "Well, you just say it." The student, distressed by this
answer, queried again, "How can I with integrity affirm a creed in
which I do not believe?" And the theologian replied, "It's not
your creed; it's our creed." In other words, these aren't your own words, written just for you and tailored to be something you
can affirm easily. These are the words of our community. Simply
saying them is important, and links us across both time and space;
and saying them changes us, gradually; and it matters that we say
them even if they don't perfectly fit what we think we believe.
Probably my favorite passage in the essay is this:
As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend.
And once I realized that this was all it was -- that in worship,
you are asked to say words you don't understand, or worse, words
you presume to think you have mastered well enough to accept
or reject -- I had a way through my impasse. I began to
appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship,
or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly
what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.
As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend --
isn't that the truth! And I love her insight here that liturgy and
poetry intermingle in this way. Often, I think, liberal religious
folks want to demand of our liturgy that it appeal to our minds,
to our politics, to the ideas and values we hold dear -- and
there's a lot to be said for that. But at the same time, it's worth
remembering that liturgy isn't only, and isn't always, meant to
express something timely and agreeable; it's also meant to connect
us with our history, with other people, and with some of the deepest
emotions we know how to feel. It's not always meant to be comfortable, or to be something to which we can assent intellectually.
Granted, great poetry isn't necessarily usable as liturgy; the two serve different needs, in the end. But I think there's common ground. We allow our poems to be associative, complicated, resonant
in ways we don't necessarily understand; how might we
be changed if we treated our liturgy likewise?
On a related note, Eric Selinger at A Big Jewish Blog has announced a project called Siddur Kol Hevel: A Prayerbook for the Rest Of Us, and wants to hear what poems, quotations, and other snippets of text you would put in a siddur of your own:
What are your favorite, most inspiring, most unsettling passages? The ones you turn to, or that shaped you, for better or for worse? Ones you've stumbled across, and that haunt you--or tickle you, for that matter, with their sass and heterodoxy.
Drop him a comment and weigh in; I'm expecting interesting stuff.
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