Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faithby Kathleen Norris
From Kathleen Norris, the author who "writes about religion with the imagination of a poet" (Chicago Tribune), comes this unusual, accessible, and profound investigation of Christian faith. Taking as her starting point the "scary words" that can intimidate and distance us from our religious heritage words like judgment, faith, dogma, salvation and sinner, Norris blends history, theology, storytelling, etymology and memoir to help us reflect on their meanings. Always entertaining, and thought provoking, Norris awakens us to the possibility of belief. Through this exhilarating journey, readers will come to know more about the gradual conversion and the daily struggle for faith that Norris described in her bestseller The Cloister Walk. Amazing Grace will grant an illuminating perspective on how we can embrace ancient traditions and find faith in the contemporary, everyday world.
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Read an Excerpt
An alert human infant, at about one month of age, begins to build a vocabulary, making sense of the chaos of sound that bombards the senses. Addressed by another human being, the baby pays attention with its whole body, often waving arms and legs in response. One of the first signs that the child has begun to understand there to be a relation between the human face and the oddly pleasurable noises it makes, between the world of self and that of other people, is that it watches that face intently, especially the mouth. And it begins to move the tongue in and out of its mouth in imitation, trying on the sound of speech, which at one month is well beyond its capabilities. But it is worth the effort, and the child will continue to try. An essential connection has been made; there are noises we share with others, sounds that are deserving of response.
Eventually the rudiments of words come; often "Mama," "Dada," "Me," and the all-powerful "No!" An unqualified "Yes" is a harder sell, to both children and adults. To say "yes" is to make a leap of faith, to risk oneself in a new and often scary relationship. Not being quite sure of what we are doing, or where it will lead us, we try on assent, we commit ourselves to affirmation. With luck, we find that our efforts are rewarded. The vocabulary of faith begins.
The confidence that faith requires is notoriously easier for small children than for adults. No matter what the circumstances of our upbringing, our capacity for trust, allegiance, and confidence is badly battered in the everyday process of growing up. I hada radiant faith as a child, mostly related to song and story. Like many people of my "baby boomer" generation, I drifted away from religion when catechism came to the fore, and well-meaning adults who taught Sunday school and confirmation class seemed intent on putting the vastness of "God" into small boxes of their devising. Theirs was a scary vocabulary, not an inviting one. And religion came to seem just one more childhood folly that I had to set aside as an adult. In my mid-thirties, however, it became necessary to begin to reclaim my faith, scary vocabulary and all.
If it have had any guide in this endeavor, it is my maternal grandmother, Charlotte Totten. Hers was a grown-up faith that retained so much of its childhood certitude that people in my church still talk to me about the Bible studies she conducted, even though she died twenty-five years ago. She was a woman of faith who was, as the saying would have it, no fool. I was an unruly child, but one penetrating look from her, one sharp word, even an emphatic, exasperated "Well!" was enough to make me mind, to bring me back to myself and my right relation to others. I learned from her that this coming to my senses, this realigning of true relationship, might serve as a definition of a living faith. Not a list of "things I believe," but the continual process of learning (and relearning) what means to love God, my neighbor, and myself.
When I began attending church again after twenty-five years away, I felt bombarded by the vocabulary of the Christian church. Words such as "Christ," "heresy," "repentance," and "salvation" seemed dauntingly abstract to me, even vaguely threatening. They carried an enormous weight of emotional baggage from my childhood and also from family history. For reasons I did not comprehend, church seemed a place I needed to be. But in order to inhabit it, to claim it as mind, I had to rebuild my religious vocabulary. The words had to become real to me, in an existential sense.
This book is a report on the process by which they did so. And in writing it, I find that it has been important for me to discern which words still remain "scary" to me, and for what reason. I have also inquired of others-friends, as well as strangers encountered at my readings and lectures-as to their own "scariest" religious words. Words like "Antichrist," "blood," "dogma," "revelation." I have compiled this "lexicon" in the firm conviction that human beings are essentially storytelling bipeds, and that dictionary definitions of potent religious words, while useful in understanding one' religious heritage, are of far less importance that the lived experience of them within that tradition. It has certainly been the case for me.
In approaching these words I have employed both poetic license, and what I hope is a fair and honorable sense of play. I am well aware that I am at play in a minefield. My writing about matter of faith has sometimes elicited peevish response from both extremes of the Christian spectrum in America-fundamentalists and liberals alike-as well as from people who think that religion is bunk and that I am wasting my time. But I persist in my hope that I have something to say to people who cannot believe that I joined a church, as well as to those who wonder what took me to do so.
Not long ago, after I had presented a portion of this book at Catholic college, a woman in the audience asked a question. The discussion period was coming to an end I was getting ready to call it a night, but the faculty member who has introduced me spotted her hand in the air. I'll always be grateful to him for so carefully scanning the darkened auditorium, and to her for allowing curiosity and frustration to overcome discretion. "I don't mean to be offensive," she said, " but I just don't understand how you can get so much comfort from religion whose language does so much harm."
I had spent too many years outside the Christian religion to be offended by her comment. I know very well that faith can seem strange, and even impenetrable, to those who do not share it. I understood all too well where that question was coming from. But how to respond, there and then, to this woman's evident bafflement, and even anguish? I took a deep breath, and blessed clarity came. I realized that what troubled me most was her use of the word "comfort," so I addressed that first. I said that I did not think it was comfort I was seeking, or comfort that I'd found. Look, I said to her, as a rush of words came to me. As far as I am concerned, this religion had saved my life, my husband's life, and our marriage. So it's not comfort that I'm talking about but salvation.
The woman nodded her head vigorously, as if to ward off any more undeniable but incomprehensible things I might say. As for myself, I was startled by the words that had come flying out of my mouth; as so often happens when I put on the spot, I had said things I hadn't fully realized were true until I'd said them. All in all, it felt good to drop for a moment the polite fiction of religious tolerance and get down to the real questions people have about faith in the modern era: How can you believe this stuff? How can you find good where I see only prejudice, sexism, evil? I don' understand.
Meet the Author
Kathleen Norris is the award-winning, bestselling author of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith; The Cloister Walk; and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, in various anthologies, and in her own three volumes of poetry. She divides her time between South Dakota and Hawaii.
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