ST JOHN’S IS BEING ST JOHN’S - A STORY FROM KATHLEEN NORRIS
The Porch talked with beloved writer Kathleen Norris a few months ago, and a snippet of our conversation was too good to leave out - so here’s a little story we like hearing, about first impressions and lasting judgements. Kathleen will be our guest speaker at an upcoming Ireland Retreat, hosted by Gareth Higgins - see www.irelandretreats.com for more information.
Kathleen Norris: It’s our first sunny day here, in a while. I’m at St John’s Abby and university, in a place called Collegeville, Minnesota, about 75 miles north and west of Minneapolis. It’s one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in the world, and also a university for young men, and a school of theology for people of both sexes. It’s a place I know pretty well. I’ve been coming here for almost 30 years. It’s a place I always love returning to. For fall semester this year, I’m at a place called the Collegeville Institute, where writers, and scholars, and artists come to work on their projects, form a little community, do some weekly things together, but you’re basically left on your own to work.
It’s a wonderful environment, and beautiful too, because there’s about 2,500 acres of mostly forests, and lakes, and trails. Then, there’s the campus, and the abbey. One of the things I look forward to is the Sunday mass with the abbey, because on Sunday, the monks process into the church, down the cloister walk, and the church is a Marcel Breuer masterpiece. It’s a little over fifty years old. They come down the cloister walk, following someone carrying the cross into the church. They’re all in their black habits.
The first Sunday I was here, in September, I noticed there was one man who was not in a black habit. He was wearing an orange habit. A Buddhist monk was processing into the church with the Christian monks. I said, “Oh, yes. St John’s is being St John’s.” I wasn’t even surprised. It turned out that the Buddhist monk in question is actually my next-door neighbor, at the institute. Occasionally, he comes to the morning prayer, and the evening prayer. When he comes to mass, he will just ask for a blessing, but he’s there. I know that he’s happy to be sitting with the monks.
I found out that, when he first arrived, he and another monk who met each other through monastic inter-religious dialogue went to see the Abbot to arrange some things for him, because he’s a begging monk. He can’t go to the grocery store, and feed himself. So, they had to arrange for him to get meals at the abbey, or just show up to the kitchen door of the university, and they would be able to give him things to eat. So, he’s fine, but they had to arrange this.
Then the Christian monks said, “Well, Abbot John, he’d like to sit with us in choir. Is that okay?” Abbot John said, “Well, he’s a monk, of course he can sit with us.” That, again, is St John’s being St John’s, very hospitable, very open to people who aren’t like them, ‘cause they understand. Benedictines understand, better than most people, I think, that hospitality is not trying to change someone into you, or make people more like you. It’s accepting people as they are.
One of the marvelous things is that this Buddhist monk, he’s here writing icons. It turns out that his monastery, in California, their next door neighbor is a Ukrainian Orthodox monastery. They’re friendly with each other. The abbot of the Orthodox monastery writes icons, and this Buddhist monk wanted to take lessons from him on how to paint icons. Of course, he had to start out painting Christian icons, because that’s in the tradition. So, he’s painted a number of Christian icons.
We’ve seen some of his work here. He painted several of a young Saint Benedict, which were very nice. He’s painted one of Christ Emmanuel, but he’s also decided that he wants to try to paint Buddhist images, as well, and use them in contemplation, so, making Buddhist icons. Just from what I’ve seen, he’s actually done some nice work with that. Again, you have a monk who’s a Buddhist monk making Christian icons in a Benedictine monastery. It all just works, because there’s a level of grace, and humility here.
I have to say that the big laugh I had, the first week I was here, there’s a number of people in the institute and we have a washer and dryer that we can use for our laundry. I went in one day to do the laundry. I couldn’t put my clothes in the dryer, because the Buddhist monk’s sheets and his Buddhist habit was in the dryer. I thought, “Well. I’ve never folded a Buddhist monk’s habit before, but I guess I can start.” I knew from talking to him, he wouldn’t mind, if I took his clothes out, if you needed the dryer. So, there I am, standing in this little room, trying to figure out how to fold this Buddhist monk’s habit.
Again, St John’s is being St John’s. I think they do Catholicism in the right way, in a very hospitable way. That’s been a delightful thing. It turns out he’s my next-door neighbor. I’m living, actually, between a Christian monk, and a Benedictine monk, in my little apartment here.
The Porch: That’s a via media, if ever I heard one.
Kathleen Norris: Yeah. That’s just fine. For a while, the next-door neighbor to the Christian monk was a Muslim novelist, a woman. So, it’s like, “Yeah. Okay. We’re here. We’re doing our thing.”
The Porch: So, if you were to speak one thing into the current fractiousness, and polarization in our culture that speaks to The Seventh Story, what might it be?
Kathleen Norris: Meet people, and listen to them, and don’t judge by appearances. So, if somebody’s wearing a Hijab, or a Buddhist habit, you don’t know a thing about them, as people. That’s the thing that makes, I think, that makes the difference. Once you meet someone, one to one, have a conversation with them, find out what they’re interested in … I mean, the only thing that’s really inscrutable, to me, about this Buddhist monk is that he’s a baseball fan, and I’ve never understood the game!
So, just meeting people, but listening, and not prejudging, ‘cause that seems to be the real addiction in our culture, besides opioids, is judgment, judging other people on the basis of nothing. You take one look at them, and you just decide this is who this person is.
I have another funny story. This was years ago, now. I was addressing about a thousand people. It was an association of religious publishers, an annual convention. It was this really big deal. [The person introducing me] said, “We love Kathleen. She’s as comfortable as an old shoe.” I thought, “All right. I’m as comfortable as an old shoe,” but later I was being introduced to a number of people, and I noticed, “It’s interesting. They’re going to introduce me to the janitor.” That struck me kind of odd. Then they said, “ This is Bishop so and so.” I said, “Ah! A real bishop, cleverly disguised as a humble janitor.” This was something. So, ‘cause I looked at the guy, I thought, “Okay, He looks like the custodian.” Turned out he was a bishop. So, you can be surprised, if you go on your own opinions, and your own judgment, you might very well be surprised what you find.