Kathleen Norris and the Rekabites

When I was a sophomore in college, my version of introverted-book-worm-retail-therapy relied heavily upon the local Half-Price Bookstore. One particularly low afternoon, I left there with a copy of Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk topping a short stack of impulse buys.

I had never heard of her, or of the book, but I had a growing fascination with liturgy, the church year, and monastic communities - forms of religious practice far removed from my own non-denominational Bible church background - so the book had been intriguing.

I fell in love with the soul-feeding richness of her prose, depth of her insight, newness of her ideas. Over the last decade I've written papers about her and read every book she's written. On Saturday, she was the keynote speaker at Taylor's Honors Conference on Simplicity and Sustainability, and I got to have dinner with her afterwords.

She's human, believe it or not, and kind of grandmotherly. Over cheese and crackers we talked about netflix ("It's so wonderful! They have all these documentaries and hard-to-find films."), twitter ("I can't believe someone made a twitter account for Wendell Berry quotes. He would be horrified, wouldn't he?"), which books Rosie should read (not Dakota, in case it should cause her to move out west, but The Cloister Walk - "Get thee to a nunnery, girl!"), monks ("I once stayed at a Zen Buddhist monastery where everyone was required to practice silent mediation for 90 minutes, twice a day. They poked you with a rod if you fell asleep - and not too gently."), blogs ("I read only one blog. I kept a diary for many years, and I would be mortified if it were online! I can't understand it.") and of course poetry (try Lynne Powell, she suggests).

At the conference, she spoke about the sustainability of love, and at one point noted that at the center of any major religion, you find the ethic of loving your neighbor.

Not surprisingly, she got some polite pushback from her evangelical audience on that point. Both a student and a faculty member asked her to elaborate upon the relationship of "truth and love in interfaith dialogue".

Not surprisingly, she sidestepped the question of universalism quite neatly.

I usually like to sidestep that question myself. Since Saturday - I have to admit - my little old evangelical self has been kind of worried about Kathleen Norris. Does she, with all her wisdom and study and life experience, think that loving your neighbor is enough? And if it is, how does religion differ from secular humanism?

I'm not writing this today to actually propose an answer to the question of universalism, obviously. But while I was cogitating, Common Prayer this week led me to Jeremiah 35. In that chapter, God uses the faithfulness of the Rekabites to their ancesters' commands to shame the Israelites for their faithlessness to his commands. And then he honors the Rekabites by promising that someone from their family will always be serving Him. (Matthew Henry's commentary notes: "The greatest blessing that can be entailed upon a family is to have the worship of God kept up in it from generation to generation.")

I love that God calls people to himself from every nation, from every family, and I love how these details pop up throughout the Bible, like how Melchizadek, not an Israelite, just shows up, and is refered to as a priest of God Most High. Like how God honors the Rekabites for their faithfulness to the light, to the laws, they'd been given.

I used to think that to appeal to mystery when the Bible is "so clear" (like "He predestined us" or "I am THE way") was an intellectual cop-out; and sometimes, I still think it is. In this case, I clearly need to study more. But I think it's also true that sometimes, to appeal to mystery is simply and rightly to admit that God's ways are higher than the heavens, that his thoughts are not my thoughts.

What's not a mystery is this: that God is good and that he is just and that he is merciful; that he has revealed himself in the world and in the word and in the Word made flesh.

Kathleen Norris has enriched my life, and I pray God blesses her as she has blessed me. Go read her books, y'all!

{PS: She says she's thinking about a new book, one that will be about home in its many forms. I cannot wait to read it.}