Friday, April 09, 1999

Duo's books on faith leave room for doubt

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Writers Kathleen Norris and Patrick Henry both inhabit the terrain of faith that sits between rigid fundamentalism and squishy, feel-good spirituality.

        The two will come to Cincinnati Sunday for the first of several joint readings, appearances that Ms. Norris calls “The Patrick and Kathleen Show.” They come to their work with significant differences: she was removed from Christian practice for 20 years, he never left; she is a poet and he a former professor; she practices her craft in a small South Dakota town, he works in an ecumenical institute associated with a Minnesota university.

        But their similarities seem more significant. Both lace together personal experience, theology and the wisdom of thinkers before them in explaining why they believe what they do. And both manage to avoid the extreme poles of Christianity that so many other writers adopt, allowing for ambiguity and doubt but also allowing for belief and conviction.

        “Any kind of faith, you have to have some conviction that this belief is a way of understanding the world, a way that has worked for 2,000 years,” says Ms. Norris, who will read from and sign the softcover edition of her best-selling Amazing Grace (Riverhead Books, $12.95). Mr. Henry will do the same for The Ironic Christian's Companion (Riverhead, $23.95), his new release.

        “You don't want that to become too comfortable a thought, though,” Ms. Norris says. “Having conviction and knowing that you believe in this tradition is important, but when yourself or others are really frustrated or angry, those are the kinds of questions you need to ask sometimes to keep faith alive.”

        Ms. Norris and Mr. Henry met in 1990 at the annual meeting of the American Benedictine Academy. Ms. Norris, a Presbyterian, had become interested in monasticism and had begun spending time in a Benedictine monastery near her home. Mr. Henry was (and still is) director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., a Benedictine institution.

        Their common interests led to friendship, and Mr. Henry suggested Ms. Norris apply for a fellowship at his institute. Her stay there led to The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Books), her examination of Benedictine life and her experiences as a lay associate member.

        In the meantime Mr. Henry, a professor of religion at Swarthmore College for 17 years, was working on a manuscript about his own spiritual journey. Drawing on sources as varied as Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guides for bird watching, Dr. Seuss and C.S. Lewis, Mr. Henry was also prompted by events such as his minister father's suicide.

        Ms. Norris read the manuscript and recommended that he call her editor, and her publisher ended up being his as well. By this time Ms. Norris had finished Amazing Grace, reflections on the “scary” vocabulary — heresy, repentance, apocalypse — that she encountered on her return to Christianity.

        “From very different starting points and mid-points, Kathleen and I have arrived at the same point — belief in a God of surprises, a God who calls us to adventure rather than certainty,” Mr. Henry says. “For both of us, life taught us that God can be trusted but not taken for granted.”

        • What: Writers Kathleen Norris and Patrick Henry read and sign copies of their books at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. A reception at Knox Presbyterian Church follows.

        • When: Book signing is from 2-4 p.m. Sunday. Reception is from 4-6 p.m.

        • Where: Joseph-Beth is at Rookwood Pavilion, Madison and Edwards roads, Norwood. Knox Presbyterian Church is at 3400 Michigan Ave., Hyde Park.

        • Cost: Free.

        • Miscellaneous: Information: 396-8960 for the book signing; 321-2573 for the reception.


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