MEMPHIS — “We do not know, but we are not lost.”
That’s a line from a poem that Kathleen Norris’s husband wrote, after the two of them sat talking at the kitchen table one night about what she thought about angels and he thought about numbers and what all that might say about truth.
That question came from a man who Norris described as a “recovering Catholic;” a man she knew was ready to talk about religion when he would say things to her such as, “Doesn’t it matter that none of it is true?”
But Norris persuaded her husband to think a little as she does, that mystery may be at the heart of Christian discipleship. Our most important relationships all involve mystery, she said — when people vow during a wedding to stick together for better and for worse, for example, the promise is made without knowing much at all about what surprises that journey will bring.
But we can approach these mysteries as disciples, Norris said — as people of faith, willing to learn.
Speaking Nov. 4 in Memphis at the national gathering of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, Norris read poems of religious mystery and of ecstasy, the mystery shimmering out in images from nature and real life. She is a writer who spends summers in Lemmon, S. D. and part of the year in Honolulu, has lived for chunks of time in a Benedictine monastery, who eventually joined a Presbyterian church.
At first, Norris comes across as perhaps shy — standing at the podium with short brown hair, her shirt a patchwork of reds and greens and blues. But almost immediately her humor begins to bubble. She hypothesizes that wisdom literature “was put into the Bible as a test for literalists.”
Sifting through her papers for some poems she wanted to read, Norris said: “I once saw a famous biblical scholar who was unable to find I Corinthians. It was wonderful.”
Norris also spoke of basking in the mystery — of listening for it in every-day life, writing one poem about what a group Presbyterian women said to each other matter-of-factly about aging and death and eternal life while cleaning up after serving coffee.
She talked of how God calls people through mystery — how Mary said yes to God “in fear and wonder and joy.”
But too we often turn away from the mystery, Norris said, preferring the known and the familiar and the ordinary to those odd, strange, scary moments when God speaks to us through some mysterious means. And when we do, “the gates close, the pathway vanishes.”
Even the disciples often didn’t know what Jesus meant, Norris said. “The important thing was they stayed with him … God and God’s loyal voice are only to be found where that mystery is.”
She also spoke of leaving the door open to all who want to enter into the mystery.
One Benedictine monk, who became a valued friend, helped Norris understand that she needed her own faith community — that’s why she joined a Presbyterian church. His support helped Norris and her husband work their way through some difficult times. She’d known him for five years when another friend asked, “How can you stand him? He’s so conservative, he’s almost a John Bircher.”
Norris said she and the monk had never discussed politics — a great gift, she told the Covenant Network. Too often, “before we agree to listen to someone we want to know if they’re a Democrat or a Republican, gay or straight,” she said.
Christians need to remember that God decides — they certainly don’t — who’s welcome in the house of God, Norris said. Some conservatives want litmus tests and fear anyone different; they only want their teeth cleaned by Christian dentists, she said. And liberals speak of welcoming diversity, but don’t know what to do with Republicans or people in the military.
Remember, she said, that those excluded have at times included people who translated the Bible into English, who helped shelter Jews during the Holocaust, who married someone of another faith.
At an Episcopal church in Honolulu, a woman began making packets of prayer beads for people serving in the military, Norris said. As word got out, more and more military people requested the beads — which came in a felt package promising that along with the beads would come prayer on their behalf. In time, those assembling the prayer beads included people strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, who’d protested against it, but who were willing to pray for the soldiers serving there.
“God can come to any of us at any time,” Norris said. “Even to a cold and smelly manger.”
Sometimes, Norris stays in the mystery even when she doesn’t want to.
She wrote a poem based on the passage in the Bible where Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
Norris cringes whenever she hears that passage, “I run from the mystery,” she said. She wants to say to Jesus, “I’m working on it. Is that OK?”
But she decided if she didn’t back away, she could find something to say about who Jesus is. And she did.