I live in an American desert, without much company, without television, because I am trying to know where on earth I am. Dakota discipline, like monastic discipline, requires me to know.Kathleen Norris, Dakota
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography is the kind of book that I am often drawn to – a spiritual memoir about a life lived faithfully in a particular place, and that digs so deeply into its own circumstances that it invariably offers wisdom that is universal. I was first introduced to Kathleen Norris’s writing through a subsequent book of hers, The Cloister Walk, but “Dakota” is really the book I should have read first (and the book I have heard her recommend reading first). I, for one, wish that I had read this much earlier in my ministry, but I am thankful to have now finally read it.
Kathleen Norris and her husband moved to the small town of Lemmon, South Dakota after her grandparents died, to care for the farm interests they left the family. She expected to stay a few years, but made a home there. Norris discovered in that place something akin to what the desert fathers and mothers found in the deserts of Egypt back in the fourth century – a place with few enough distractions that it can serve to help a person deepen their spiritual roots and grow in their faith. And Norris offers us something similar to what those desert fathers and mothers offer us – practical, spiritual wisdom rooted in an authentically lived faith.
This is a book that is about so much more than the Dakotas, or about living in a small town. I think that any pastor called to serve in a small town or rural community would do well to read this, along with teachers, doctors and others in similar circumstances. Norris offers many pearls of hard-earned wisdom throughout this book, like this:
Like the desert tales that monks have used for centuries as a basis for a theology and way of life, the tales of small-town gossip are morally instructive, illustrating the ways ordinary people survive the worst that happens to them; or, conversely, the ways in which self-pity, anger, and despair overwhelm and destroy them. Gossip is theology translated into experience.
What a helpful re-framing of gossip this is! Or how about this observation, which hits home for me, and is something that I have learned over the years serving as a pastor:
It is a truism that outsiders, often professionals with no family ties, are never fully accepted into a rural or small-town community. Such communities are impenetrable for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the most important stories are never spoken of; the local history mentality has worn down their rough edges, or placed them safely out of sight, out of mind.
She goes on in this same section to unpack this a little more:
It is impossible to exaggerate how much the unconscious, the hidden story, dictates behavior in such families (I would add congregations). If you know the story going back fifty years or so, their behavior makes sense. If you don’t, and you’re an outsider, especially a teacher or pastor, someone whose profession connects with people’s deepest (and most deeply embedded) needs, then God help you. You may wake one morning to find that all of the unresolved conflict of lo these many generations have just been laid at your door.”
I have learned as a pastor how important it is to remember this, for so many reasons, and when I have kept this in mind it has given me patience and courage in the face of the inevitable conflicts that have arisen in my ministry. One other observation that I will be thinking about for a while is this comparison of monastery life with life in a small town:
One thing that distinguishes the monastery from the small town is that the Rule of Saint Benedict, read aloud daily and constantly interpreted, provides definition of certain agreed-upon values that make for community. The small-town minister, expected to fill the role of such a rule by reminding people to love one another, is usually less effectual.
Ouch! But it makes me wonder, in this increasingly polarized world of ours, with people getting their news from sources that see the world very differently from one another, what is our agreed-upon rule? When we cannot agree on the truth, about politics, science, or even the interpretation of scripture, what are the agreed-upon values upon which we can build a congregation or community?
This book offers an honest look at the challenges of living in small towns, but also the blessings. In many ways this book is about the (often overlooked) importance of small towns and small congregations in our country and world. These small communities are places where we can find ourselves, learn to love others, and grow in our faith and life. Just as monasteries offer effective places for spiritual formation, so can these small communities be.
Norris often returns to stories of the desert fathers and mothers to discover wisdom applicable to her life in the Great Plains, and this is one from St. Anthony:
In his Life of Anthony, Athanasius describes the mountain in the desert where the saint finally settles as a hermit, saying that ‘Anthony, as though inspired by God, fell in love with the place.’
Kathleen Norris fell in love with her place, too, and out of that love came this beautiful book. I have a personal belief that all faithful living begins with falling in love with the place, whatever place that may be. That has certainly been true in my ministry, and in my life. I am grateful to Kathleen Norris for reminding me of this, and for writing this wonderful book. I commend it to you.