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In Celebration of Spirituality and Simplicity

Kathleen Norris writes of her time with the Benedictines. They provide, she says, a life model for us all.

May 21, 1996|BERKLEY HUDSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Outside her West Hollywood hotel window, Kathleen Norris, author of the surprise 1993 bestseller "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography," can see a Sunset Boulevard billboard. It pictures a fashion model in a lime-colored miniskirt and revealing, gauzy lime top.

Norris is wearing a less eventful, wine-colored dress and scarf. In understatement as flat as the Plains, she says: "All the trends catch on three to five years late in South Dakota. But I have the feeling that lime green won't make it there."

With one exception: Lime Jell-O has long been a staple of women's club luncheons. And, as Norris has written, when you say "salad" in the western Dakotas, you may mean lime Jell-O with Cool Whip and sliced bananas.

"It's like interplanetary travel to come here from there," says Norris, a resident of Lemmon, S.D., and in Los Angeles recently to promote her new book, "The Cloister Walk" (Riverhead Books), about her time living with Benedictine monks and nuns.

Yet to her astonishment, connections exist between the Dakotas and elsewhere: like the Los Angeles minister who wrote to Norris to say that, after reading "Dakota" (Houghton Mifflin), he better understood the older members of his congregation. Of Germanic and Russian descent, they had fled the Dakotas decades ago and rarely discussed the harsh Plains life they left behind. Says Norris: "I never envisioned that someone like him could have found use for my book."

"The Cloister Walk" may also offer surprising connections for urban and rural dweller alike, particularly baby boomers who, like Norris, 48, rejected organized religion years ago yet hunger for simplicity and spirituality in this age of downsizing, franchising and corporate merging.

Child psychiatrist and author Dr. Robert Coles, in the New York Times Book Review, glowingly compared Norris to writers James Agee and William Carlos Williams. Wrote Coles: "Her writing is personal and epigrammatic--a series of short takes that ironically addresses the biggest subject matter possible: how one ought to live a life, with what purposes in mind."

A blend of essays and journal entries, "The Cloister Walk," published last month, records how Norris, a fallen-away Protestant and married, immersed herself among Catholicism's Benedictines. In the process she returned to the Protestantism of her youth and became a lay preacher at two Presbyterian churches. And she became a Benedictine oblate, or associate, taking an abbreviated version of their vows.

She has no desire, however, to convert to Catholicism. "When I'm in Lemmon, I'm Presbyterian. But I become this weird Benedictine wanderer when I'm not there. I'm a poet. I can live with my contradictions," says Norris, who can be brusque one moment, playful the next.

The 384-page book is structured around her two, nine-month residencies at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota, home to about 200 Benedictines, and other visits with Benedictines from 1991 to 1994. The book shuttles between her timeless time in contemplative atmospheres and sojourns in Lemmon, Manhattan, Los Angeles and Honolulu.

Norris muses with intensity on virgin martyrs of centuries ago and Vogue models, celibacy and consumerism, sexuality and sexual abuse by priests, American marriage and her own married life. With poetic and feminist sensibilities, she expands on themes she explored in "Dakota."

She links the disparate worlds of 4th century desert monks and modern-day Benedictines to epiphanies in the South Dakota town where she and her husband, poet David Dwyer, moved to from New York City in 1974.

They moved there to settle her grandmother's estate, planning to stay a year or so in the white-frame, two-bedroom house where her grandparents had lived. But Norris and Dwyer never left, writing and working odd jobs to make ends meet--he tending bar, translating French books; she keeping books for a cable company, teaching poetry in the schools, working in the library.

"I've always considered myself a literary writer," says Norris, educated at Bennington College and the author of three poetry books. Her narrative and lyrical poems have appeared in the New Yorker and the Paris Review. In her new book, she says, "I'm writing for a general audience, for people with little or no interest in religion or monastic studies."

That described her until 1983 when she "stumbled across the Benedictines" after going to a reading at a North Dakota abbey 90 miles from her town. Later, teaching poetry in a school for Native Americans, her hosts lodged her with Benedictine nuns.

There, she discovered the rules set down in the 6th century by St. Benedict. She found down-to-earth advice on living in a community--a subject that has intrigued her since moving to Lemmon with its dwindling population, now at 1,600 residents.

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