Authentic spiritual journeys are seldom neat and orderly, especially for artists. Kathleen Norris's biographical reflections in The Virgin of Bennington bear witness to this. As Augustine summarized his own messy journey, "Salvation is far from sinners, and such was I at that time. Yet little by little I was drawing closer to You although I did not know it." Among Kathleen Norris's books are Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and three books of poetry. The Virgin of Bennington is now available in paperback.
How would you describe your conversion experience?
I would call it a reconversion. I'd grown up singing in church choirs in the Methodist Church and United Church of Christ since I was 3 years old, and drifted away from all of that when I went to college. Once the family moorings are gone you can drift awhile before you realize that maybe there is something to this faith business, and to Christianity, after all. It isn't just for grandmas and small kids, which is how I looked at it in my 20s.
Your home and your Bennington life were radically different.
Absolutely. I had a very close-knit family. We went to church every Sunday. And I really missed my family at college. I missed Hawaii because there's a huge difference culturally between Hawaii and Vermont. Weather has not much to do with it. It's just the whole cultural shifting to the East Coast. Bennington is really connected more to New York City than to the countryside.
The Bennington of the '60s was known for being a very out-there environment.
And always had been. It had been founded in the 1930s during the Depression by followers of John Dewey for "learning by doing." It was one of the first homes for modern dance. I think Martha Graham taught there in the '30s. So Bennington had this wonderful artistic reputation, and that had appealed to me. I don't think I knew I wanted to be a writer when I went there, but I was certainly willing to let the college encourage me in that.
But you were bookish.
Definitely. I thought I was going to be a librarian. But Bennington has a well-deserved reputation for nurturing young artists in dance, drama, painting. What they weren't excellent at in the 1960s is really knowing what to do with girls who came from the Midwest or the West, from small-town backgrounds, and who weren't prepared to find peers who had been going to psychiatrists since they were 12 years old and addicted to methamphetamine.
It was your place for sexual experimentation.
Yeah. One of the things that I really learned during this is not to buy the lie of the sexual revolution—that it doesn't matter who you have sex with or who your partners are. I got engraved invitations to orgies, which I turned down. I had that much common sense. But people would say that sex doesn't matter. You can go out and have sex with anyone. This really was the cultural lie at the time. I remember having my doubts about that. If I learned nothing else in my 20s, it's that sexual desire and sexual experience are extremely powerful. It can turn you on a dime. It can turn you into someone you don't want to be. And it can also lead you in the right direction, which I think in my case was my 25-year friendship with my husband.
Let's talk about the title of the book, The Virgin of Bennington. You wanted to be called the Poet in a party setting, and they ended up calling you the Pope. Though you were experimenting with yourself in many ways, you did have this reputation of being somewhat more grounded.
The title that I had, the Virgin of Bennington, came from the fact that I think I was one of the very few girls who was a virgin until well into my senior year at college. People just found that extraordinary, including the school doctors and nurses. I went in for a physical exam one time and they were just stunned. So it was kind of a countercultural position at the time. I just would tell my friends, "I'm not hung up about sex. I'm not ready yet. Just leave me alone; it'll happen." And, of course, it did. I did the profoundly stupid thing of having a crush on a married professor. I did about the most stupid thing you could imagine, but for three and a half years I just kept telling people I wasn't ready yet.
It was that affair with this professor that gave me the nerve to go to New York City. In turn, that was what introduced me to the greatest mentor of my life, the woman I worked for: Betty Kray.
Elizabeth Kray is probably, other than yourself, the central character of this book. You call her the first reader of your life and of your art. She essentially involved herself in every aspect of your life, right down to what you wore.
Yeah. Because she wasn't my mother I would actually listen to her. That was the secret.
It was in New York that you also came into the Andy Warhol crowd and drugs.
As at Bennington, I sort of stood out because I wasn't really engaging in a lot of casual sex. In New York I stood out in that crowd because I really was afraid to experiment with drugs. The very few times I tried anything, like LSD or mescaline, once was enough. It was obvious that it was not for me.
You say the publishing of Falling Off was like an earthquake. Here you are in your 20s and you have a work of poetry published. That's amazing.
I think when success comes that young, quite often you don't feel like you've really earned it. But the reaction of some of the people I thought were my friends was extremely painful. All of a sudden, I was competition. I had pulled ahead of the pack somehow. It was $500 and publication of a book, which doesn't sound like a lot, but at the time it really was an enormous upheaval in my life. And it got so I stopped introducing myself as a poet. That was a very painful year. I think that's just one of those things that happens in your 20s. You have to sort out success and failure and who your friends really are.
You describe yourself as a young woman in need of grounding. But some things started happening. You went to a party at the Sanctuary, which was a nightclub in an old church. You describe it as "Sleeping Beauty was awakened not by a prince but by my Presbyterian grandmother in Dakota."
It was a very, very seedy place, which I still thought was glamorous. I was just young and foolish. There were some nights like that where I just began to realize maybe all this nightlife stuff and hanging out with this crowd is not conducive to long life, to working, and to writing. So I began to pull back. I started to make those adult decisions about how I wanted to live my life. Up until then I really had been very ungrounded and very drifting.
During this period of your life, you began to feel drawn to Dakota.
Betty was also the first person who turned me on to Edward Abbey. She was the only person in Manhattan who understood, when I started talking about moving to South Dakota, that this would be a good thing for me as a writer and as a person.
I've sensed now that I really had to write those other books about the religious journey in order to get back to telling this story. This is my prequel, as it were. I really think this book shows where a religious conversion comes from. It doesn't come out of a vacuum, but it might come out of a very messy life. Out of someone who really isn't even aware that God is working in the world, and certainly in her life. But I think that as I wrote the book I was very conscious that God was really present and active all along. It's just that I was too dumb to notice it.
Do you think that's true of most of us?
Probably. Most of the time. If we walk around totally aware of God's presence all the time, we'd be lunatics. We wouldn't be able to get any work done. But I really do think I was incredibly dense at that period. There was this period where I just was so withdrawn from any sense of religion.
There is this disconnect from organized religion for many people. There's this gap between their spiritual longing and the sense that they can satisfy it in the tradition in which they were raised.
I see people seeking community. I have one friend who was practicing yoga and she said that was her spiritual life, she didn't need organized religion. Then she just realized that she was lonely, and she didn't think joining a yoga class would work. She visited on a plane with an Episcopal priest and ended up joining the Episcopal Church. She still does her yoga for physical flexibility and well-being, but now feels she's part of a worshiping community and loves it.
What have we miscommunicated about the Christian tradition that where 86 percent of people in this country say their official religion is Christianity, and yet most of them feel very disconnected from it?
Three things are so badly taught it's a miracle that anyone survives: the Christian faith, poetry, and mathematics. Those three things are always taught so any natural aptitude you have is going to be squelched out of you by the time you're in 8th grade. Why we worship, what prayer really is and what it isn't, all of those things are really not taught well to children. They have these little cute word puzzles and they might memorize the names of the books of the Bible, but that's not going to help them when they're 14 and wondering about the real issues of life. I think people just need a better grounding in whatever faith tradition that they're in. We've short-changed a great religious tradition.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life." The full text of this interview will be for sale on the website soon.
An excerpt from Kathleen Norris's Amazing Grace appeared in the April 3, 2000, issue of Christianity Today.
Christianity Today sister publication Leadership Journalinterviewed Norris in 1999 about biblical community.
Earlier Dick Staub Interviews include:
Thomas Moore | "To really live a secular life and enjoy it is part of being a religious person," says the author of Care of the Soul and The Soul's Religion (July 9, 2002)
Os Guinness | Whether we're seeking or have already been found, we're all on a journey. (July 2, 2002)
Oliver Sacks | The physician author of Awakenings talks about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, order in the universe, and testing God. (June 25, 2002)
David Myers | People say they know money can't buy happiness, says the Hope College psychology professor. But they don't truly believe it. (June 18, 2002)
Richard Lewis | The comedian, actor, and author talks about his humor, addiction, and spiritual journey. (June 11, 2002)