The National Catholic Review
Kathleen Norris
A reflection on the meaning of Easter
Image

Many years ago I received a passionate love letter written on a scrap of paper three inches square. It was placed in my jacket pocket by a 6-year-old boy as I strolled through his classroom encouraging him and the other children as they wrote and illustrated poems. I had no idea he had put it there until much later that day. His attempt at anonymity was futile; I had noticed him bent over something small, working with such intense concentration that I didn’t dare to intrude. This boy was terribly shy and had blushed deeply the day before, when I praised a drawing he had made of a brontosaurus, with its yearning neck fully extended, singing a song to the moon.

As for the content of his note, it moved me deeply, bringing tears to my eyes and also joy and wonderment. Border to border, he had filled that paper with scribbles, tiny wiggly lines, etched deeply onto the page. Much effort had gone into it, and the result was all heartfelt, inexpressible love.

What this has to do with Easter, I am not sure. But I will try to explore and explain. That little boy, his teacher told me, was not a particularly good student, though he tried hard. He was not accustomed to being told he had done something well. And now, courtesy of the North Dakota Arts Council and its Artists in Schools program, change was afoot. The teacher said she hoped this program would give her something to build on to make this child’s school experience less painful.

On the way to becoming Christian, we are all learners. When it comes to fully accepting what it means to be a Christian, I am not a particularly good student. For one thing, my prayer life is much too haphazard for a Benedictine oblate. If I am fortunate enough to be visiting a monastery, going to the Liturgy of the Hours every day, I do fine; but left to my own devices I falter. I know very well that church is the right place for me to be on Sunday morning, but I don’t always make it. I am inspired by the many people I know who practice their faith with great compassion and fervor, ministering to others with an impressive reliability that I lack. I am convinced that God loves us all.

Telling the Stories

I am sometimes told by readers that my books have ministered to them, and that is welcome news. Many of my letters from readers contain eloquent expressions of gratitude. After The Cloister Walk appeared (a book about my experience of Benedictines and their observance of the liturgical year), a man whose wife was in the last stages of lung cancer wrote to tell me that he was reading the book to her and that they were both finding solace in it. I am glad to hear such things, but I know that I could not have written the book with such a goal in mind. All I can do is tell my stories as best I can, and let a book find its own way in the world. It is grace that does the rest.

The experience of touring to promote The Cloister Walk gave me a new appreciation of the Easter season. A book tour is hard-core business travel and can be sheer drudgery; I once visited 17 cities in 21 days. But it also provides me with a welcome opportunity to meet booksellers and readers. In the 1990s I always toured in the spring, between Easter and Pentecost, and one passage from the book that seemed appropriate to share with my audiences was about visiting an elderly Benedictine who had been hospitalized after a fall. He was badly bruised, with his pain muted but not fully extinguished. Upon seeing his visitors, myself and a fellow monk, he exclaimed in a weak voice, “Ah, it’s a sweet life.”

Because of his injuries, he would soon move to the monastery nursing home and have to give up his long-term ministry at a local prison. But two people had come to visit him, which made life pure sweetness. The old man was hospitality incarnate, and his radiance reminded me of a story from the “Dialogues” of St. Gregory the Great. St. Benedict had gone to great lengths to become a hermit, but one day a visitor arrives. He explains that because it is Easter, he has brought a gift of food. Benedict replies, “I know that it is Easter, for I have been granted the blessing of seeing you.”

Being able to say that to audiences made Easter come alive for me. These strangers had indeed become a blessing for my tired eyes. I was especially thankful because I find Easter difficult to talk about. Slogans like, “We’re Easter people,” too easily degenerate into Christian jargon that drives doubters and strugglers away. In this suffering world of failed states, failed relationships and natural disasters exacerbated by human greed, it makes a lot more sense to say, “Jesus wept” than “He is risen.” But making sense is often overrated. And when it comes to the Resurrection, I have nothing to prove. My late husband convinced me that outside the ether-laced realms of higher mathematics, not much can be proven anyway. If sense and proof were all life had to offer, who would want it?

From Death to Life

As a writer and as a Christian, I find that my basic task is translating what seems abstract or otherworldly into something that people can grasp and that resonates with their experience. Talking about Easter might mean asking people if they have ever felt dead inside, with their lives stripped of meaning. Maybe they were wrapped in the grave clothes of drug addiction or depression. What was it that brought them back to themselves, to a renewed sense of purpose and freedom?

The writers of the early church are generally of more use to me than modern theologians when I am trying to make theological concepts come alive. John Chrysostom, for example, packs his dogma into plain speech and concrete imagery. A human voice comes through. The homily he preached in Constantinople before being forced into an exile from which he would never return is fortified with biblical allusion and still heart-rending more than 1,600 years later: “Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though waves rise up against me, the seas, the wrath of rulers: These things are no more to me than a cobweb.” He encourages the congregation not to lose hope because: “Where I am, there also are you; where you are, there too am I; we are one body.... We are separated by space, but we are united by love. Not even death can cut us apart. For even if my body dies, my soul will live on and will remember my people.”

To me, this is Easter truth speaking through ordinary language. To someone else, it might seem the ravings of a fool. For we are always free to choose what meaning to give to the events that shape us, to opt for fear or hope, despair or joy, bitterness or love.

Two men I knew both received a dire prognosis, one of liver cancer, the other of stage IV melanoma. The man with liver cancer, a tavern owner and petty criminal, survived much longer than anyone expected; he had several years of remission. He told me that on his worst days in the hospital he promised himself that if he ever got out again, he would devote himself to “looking out for number one.” And that is exactly what he did; living selfishly and self-indulgently until the day he died, alone and mostly unlamented.

The other man was a Benedictine monk who died just three months after his initial diagnosis. “I realized,” he wrote to friends, “that everything I’ve experienced since my original bout with melanoma 20 years ago has been a grace...not a bad realization for a monk. I have never felt so surrounded by love. This is the most grace-filled time in my life, an unending source of hope and well-being at the core of my being—pure gift.” In thanking the many who had been praying for him, he wrote: “Thanks for helping me to choose life in this time of fear and uncertainty. Something wondrous is afoot. I just can’t see it yet.”

A man named Paul, facing execution, once wrote from a jail cell: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil 4:4). A man named Jesus, on the night before he died, ate his last meal with friends, talked up a storm and no doubt startled the company by proclaiming, “I am saying these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). Wondrous things afoot: an inexpressible but ever-present love, a joy so profound that even death cannot diminish it. Happy Easter!

Kathleen Norris is the author of several acclaimed books on spirituality. Her latest book, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, is now available in paperback.

Comments

Pat Julian | 4/5/2010 - 2:48pm

Kathleen, How grateful I am to read your straight forward, beautiful thoughts on the power of images that shape how we "know" God. The examples you included in the article have inspired me to include more of the early writings to my spiritual reading.  Peace, pat  

Winifred Holloway | 4/5/2010 - 8:26am

Kathleen Norris is living proof that the world needs more poets.

C Walter Mattingly | 3/27/2010 - 3:37pm

Thank you, Ms Norris. Your words can inspire a brontosaurus to sing to the moon.