A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
From the New York Times-bestselling author of The Cloister Walk, a book about Christianity, spirituality, and rediscovered faith.
Struggling with her return to the Christian church after many years away, Kathleen Norris found it was the language of Christianity that most distanced her from faith. Words like "judgment," "faith," "dogma," "salvation," "sinner"—even "Christ"—formed what she called her "scary vocabulary," words that had become so codified or abstract that their meanings were all but impenetrable. She found she had to wrestle with them and make them her own before they could confer their blessings and their grace. Blending history, theology, storytelling, etymology, and memoir, Norris uses these words as a starting point for reflection, and offers a moving account of her own gradual conversion. She evokes a rich spirituality rooted firmly in the chaos of everyday life—and offers believers and doubters alike an illuminating perspective on how we can embrace ancient traditions and find faith in the contemporary world.
When poet Norris (The Cloister Walk) found her way back into church in the early 1980s, she was unsettled by what she calls the "vaguely threatening and dauntingly abstract" vocabulary of the church. Many of the words, like "Christ," seemed to her code words churchgoers used out of convenience when they could not find other words to use. Other words--like "salvation," "conversion," and "dogma"--seemed to Norris to be too abstract to reflect meaningfully her own experience. In this "vocabulary of faith," Norris draws upon her considerable poetic skills to refashion the vocabulary of the church into her own religious vocabulary. In each of these meditations, Norris uses anecdotes and humor to invest these words with fresh meanings. On "Salvation," for instance, she tells the story of an acquaintance who had become relatively successful in a new venture with his business partner. But, when Norris's friend realizes that his partner will go as far as committing murder to succeed, he leaves the partnership and returns home. Norris describes this victory as the beginning of salvation, "to make sufficient," because her friend "realized the road he was on was not sufficient; it could lead nowhere but death." In "Conversion: The Scary Stuff," Norris retells the story of Jacob's wrestling with the angel to demonstrate the struggle we all undergo in seeking the face of God. Norris's lyrical prose rings with clarity and grace as she brings life to her experience of the church's vocabulary.