SATURDAY READING: Ghosts—A History by Kathleen Norris

Ghosts—A History by Kathleen Norris

From Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

The church was music to me when I was little, an enthusiastic member of the cherub choir in the large Methodist church in Arlington, Virginia, where my dad was choir director.  We wore pale blue robes with voluminous sleeves, stiff white collars, and floppy black bow ties, which I thought made me look like one of the angels in my picture hymnal.

I sang from that book every day at home.  One of my strongest memories of early childhood is of sitting on my mother’s lap at our old, battered Steinway upright as she played the hymns and I sang.  By the time I was three, long before I knew how to read, I’d turn the pages and on seeing the illustration would begin singing the right song in the right pitch.

But music was no longer enough once I discovered the rosary owned by a Roman Catholic friend in first grade.  I decided I should have one too, and when my parents said I couldn’t, I took an old necklace my mom had given me and said my own grace with it at the table, after family prayers.  I had to mumble, because I had no idea what I was supposed to be saying.

This was too much for my father’s Methodist blood.  His grandfather had been a circuit rider in West Virginia and a chaplain in the Confederate Army.  His father, my grandfather, had been a stonemason, lumberjack, and jug-band banjo picker who got saved one night at a tent revival, worked his way through West Virginia Wesleyan, and spent the rest of his life preaching the Word.  My dad said, ominously, that I could become a Roman Catholic if I wanted to, but he also told me they had a list of books and movies I’d be forbidden to see.  For the first time in my life I had come up against the idea that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

And this is who I am: a complete Protestant with a decidedly ecumenical bent.  I never got that rosary when I was seven, but a friend gave me one when I’d been a Benedictine oblate for nearly five years.  I still value music and story over systematic theology – an understatement, given the fact that I was so dreamy as a child that I learned not from Sunday school but from a movie on television that Jesus dies.  Either my Sunday school teachers had been too nice to tell me (this was the 1950s), or, as usual, I wasn’t paying attention.  I am just now beginning to recognize the truth of my original vision: we go to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary.

I remember very little about my confirmation class in a Congregational church in Waukegan, Illinois, except that is was easy because I was good at memorizing, and the minister was a kindly man.  I was still singing in my dad’s choir, and music still seemed like the real reason for church.  In high school in Hawaii, my Methodist Youth Fellowship played volleyball with the Young Buddhist League.

My interest in religion deepened in adolescence, when my family joined a politically active United Church of Christ congregation, where adult classes were taught by professors of religion, one of them a German who had studied with Bultmann at Heidelberg.  He was a good Lutheran, too; once, in his student days, he had a theological argument with his brother that got so bad the police had to be called.

I had a crush on him, and took a number of his classes, still totally innocent of both romance and theology; it’s only with hindsight that I see I was on a disaster course.  I was not yet a poet, but was destined to become one.  I needed a teacher who would not have scorned Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism, a book I had found on my own, looking for some useful definition of religious experience.  I needed liturgy and a solid grounding in the practice of prayer, not a demythologizing that left me feeling starved, thinking: If this is religion, I don’t belong.  Growing up and discovering who I was meant not going near a church again for nearly twenty years.

During that time I became a writer.  I used to think that writing had substituted for religion in my life, but I’ve come to see that it has acted as a spiritual discipline, giving me the tools I needed to rediscover my religious heritage.  It is my Christian inheritance that largely defines me, but for years I didn’t know that.

In the early 1970s, when I was out of college, working in New York City and hovering on the fringe of the Andy Warhol scene, a question crept into my consciousness one day, seemingly out of the blue.  “What is sin?”  I thought I should know, but my mind was blank.  I felt like the little boy in The Snow Queen who, as he’s being carried off in the Queen’s carriage, tries desperately to remember the Lord’s Prayer but can think of nothing but the multiplication tables.

“What is sin?”  It never occurred to me to go to a church for the answer.  If the church hadn’t taught me in my first twenty years what sin was, it probably never would.  I now realize that the question was raised by the pious Protestant grandmother at my core.  I had no idea she was there, and didn’t know how to listen to her.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my move in 1974 from New York to South Dakota was an attempt to hear her voice more clearly.  It was a search for inheritance, her place.  It was also a religious pilgrimage; on the ground of my grandmother’s faith I would find both the means and the end of my search.

All of my grandparents lived out their faith on the Plains.  My paternal grandparents, the Reverend John Luther Norris and his wife, Beatrice, served twelve Methodist churches in South Dakota and several more in Iowa.  Prairie people have long memories, and they still tell stories about my grandfather’s kindness.  One man recalls that after his wife died, leaving him with several small children, he began drinking heavily.  My grandfather came to his house one day to do the family’s laundry, and though the man was drinking the whole time, my grandfather never preached about it; he just kept talking to him about his plans for the future, and, as he put it, “helped me straighten up my life.”  In his youth, my grandfather had been a black sheep in the Methodist fold, and he often exhibited more tolerance and flexibility than his wife, who clung to a rigid and often fierce fundamentalism.

My maternal grandfather, Frank Totten, was a doctor who practiced medicine in South Dakota for fifty-five years after moving from Kansas in 1909.  He could be sentimental about religion but lacked faith; his wife, Charlotte, a former schoolteacher, was a quietly pious Presbyterian, renowned in her church for the excellent Bible studies she conducted for the women’s group.  She was just about the only adult who could make me mind when I was little, and it was to her house that I moved in 1974, shortly after her death.  I’m convinced that her spirit visited me in her kitchen and taught me how to bake bread using her bowl, her old wooden spoon, and bread board.  And for a time I tried on her Presbyterian church, the way I wore her old jackets and used her furniture.  I still enjoyed singing hymns, but found that church as an uneasy exercise in nostalgia, and soon stopped going.

When some ten years later I began going to church again because I felt I needed to, I wasn’t prepared for the pain.  The services felt like word bombardment – agony for a poet – and often exhausted me so much I’d have to sleep for three or four hours afterward.  Doctrinal language slammed many a door in my face, and I became frustrated when I couldn’t glimpse the Word behind the words.  Ironically, it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out.  Sometimes I’d give up, deciding that I just wasn’t religious.  This elicited an interesting comment from a pastor friend who said, “I don’t know too many people who are so serious about religion they can’t even go to church.”

Even as I exemplified the pain and anger of a feminist looking warily at a religion that has so often used a male savior to keep women in their place, I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation.  Their well-worn Bibles said to me, “There is more here than you know,” and made me take more seriously the religion that had caused my grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used that its spine broke.  I also began, slowly, to make sense of our gathering together on Sunday morning, recognizing, however dimly, that church is to be participated in and not consumed.  The point is not what one gets out of it, but the worship of God; the service takes place both because of and despite the needs, strengths, and frailties of the people present.  How else could it be?  Now, on the occasions when I am able to actually worship in church, I am deeply grateful.

But the question of inheritance still haunts me, and I sometimes have the radical notion that I’m a Christian the way a Jew is a Jew, by maternal lineage.  Flannery O’Connor remarks in her letters that “Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow,” and I may have put on my grandmother Totten’s religion until it became my own.  But the currents of this female inheritance spring from deep waters.  Mary is also my ancestor, as is Eve.  As Emily Dickinson once said, “You know there is no account of her death in the Bible, and why am I not Eve?”  Or, why not my two grandmothers, reflecting two very different strains of American Protestantism that exist in me as a continual tension between curse and blessing, pietism and piety, law and grace, the God of wrath and the God of love.

When I was very small my fundamentalist grandmother Norris, meaning well, told me about the personal experience I’d have with Jesus one day.  She talked about Jesus coming and the world ending.  It sounded a lot like a fairy tale when the prince comes, only scarier.  Fundamentalism is about control more than grace, and in effect my grandmother implanted the seed of fundamentalism within me, a shadow in Jungian terms, that has been difficult to overcome.  Among other things, it made of Christological language a stumbling block, and told me that as a feminist, as a thinking and questioning person, I had no business being in church.  More insidiously, it imbedded in me an unconscious belief in a Monster God.  For most of my life you could not have convinced me that, to quote a Quaker friend, “Trust comes before belief and faith is a response to love more than an acceptance of dogma.”

Trust is something abused children lack, and children raised with a Monster God inside them have a hard time regaining it.  My uncle told me once about having his mother sit at the edge of his bed and tell him that Jesus might come as a thief in the night and tomorrow could be that great day when the world ends.  “That sucks when you’d been planning a ball game and a rubber gun battle,” he said.  He would pull the covers over his head when she left, and try to shut out the sounds of Jesus sneaking around in the dark.

A few years ago when I was on retreat at a monastery a poem came boiling up out of me.  Called, “The Jesus They Made For Us,” it is an exorcism of the Monster God:

He was a boy who drank his mother’s milk
He was always kind to children
He swallowed them like fish
He drank up all his mother’s milk
He ate up stars like candy
He swallowed the sea like a hungry whale

This last image came from a dream I’d had in which I lay on a beach unable to move as a giant whale swam toward me, meaning to rape and crush me.  I suspected that this whale was my true image of God, a legacy of my childhood.

A few days later I happened to visit with a little girl who showed me her drawing journal.  A recent entry was a big blue whale with three words printed underneath it in purple crayon: “God Is Love.”  Startled, I said, “That’s a wonderful picture,” and she replied dreamily, “I just love that whale.”  With no small sense of awe I realized that we had each partaken of a powerful image, and the difference in how we perceived it amounted to the difference between us.  This taught me a new appreciation of what it means to approach the holy as a little child, and some of my trust was restored.

But trust in the religious sphere has been hard to come by.  Like many Americans of my baby-boom generation.  I had thought that religion was a constraint that I had overcome by dint of reason, learning, artistic creativity, sexual liberation.  Church was for little kids or grandmas, a small-town phenomenon that one grew out of or left behind.  It was a shock to realize that, to paraphrase Paul Simon, all the crap I learned in Sunday school was still alive and kicking inside me.  I was also astonished to discover how ignorant I was about my own religion.  Apart from a few Bible stories and hymns remembered from childhood I had little with which to start to build a mature faith.  I was still that child in The Snow Queen, asking, “What is sin?” but not knowing how to find out.  Fortunately a Benedictine friend provided one answer: “Sin, in the New Testament,” he told me, “is the failure to do concrete acts of love.”  That is something I can live with, a guide in my conversation.  It’s also a much better definition of sin than I learned as a child: sin as breaking rules.

Comprehensible, sensible sin is one of the unexpected gifts I’ve found in the monastic tradition.  The fourth-century monks began to answer a question for me that the human potential movement of the late twentieth century never seemed to address: if I’m O.K., and you’re O.K., and our friends (nice people and, like us, markedly middle class, if a bit bohemian) are O.K., why is the world definitely not O.K.?  Blaming others wouldn’t do.  Only when I began to see the world’s ills mirrored in myself did I begin to find an answer; only as I began to address that uncomfortable word, sin, did I see that I was not being handed a load of needless guilt so much as a useful tool for confronting the negative side of human behavior.


Religion is in my blood, and in my ghosts.  My maternal grandmother Totten had a livable faith and a tolerance that allowed her to be open to the world.  My grandmother Norris lived with the burden of a harder faith.  She had married my grandfather – a divorced man whose wife had abandoned him and their two small children – after his conversion at a revival meetng.  The older sister she revered became a medical missionary, but my grandmother found her mission in marriage and in raising seven children as the wife of a Plains pastor who served in seventeen churches in thirty-two years.  Their first child born on the Plains, Kathleen Dakota, was born with rickets.  While my grandmother was still nursing she conceived again; her doctor found her too exhausted and malnourished to sustain another pregnancy and performed an abortion.  Early in their marriage her husband had rejected her affection in such a way that it was still fresh in her memory sixty years later.  Long after he was dead she could calmly say, “You know, of course, he never loved me.”

Her last child was born when she was in her forties, soon after her stepson, the eldest, died of meningitis.  She prayed for another boy and promised the Lord that she would rear him to become a minister if her prayers were answered – Grandma Norris was nothing if not Biblical.  She had a son who tried and failed to live out her plans for him; only years later did she affirm him in his chosen vocation of teaching, reasoning that Jesus was a teacher, too.  For most of her life she would ask of anyone she met: “Are you saved?”

It’s this hard religion, adding fuel to an all-American mix of incest, rape, madness, and suicide, that nearly destroyed an entire generation in my family.  My father’s status as oldest remaining son, his musical talent, a sense of humor, and a solid marriage helped save him.  But my aunts suffered terribly, and one was lost.  I never met her; she died the year I was born.  She died of lots of things: sex and fundamentalist religion and schizophrenia and postpartum despair.  She was a good girl who became pregnant out of wedlock and could make no room for the bad girl in herself.  She jumped out of a window at a state mental hospital a few days after she had her baby.

Looking at an old family photograph when I was twelve, I saw a face I didn’t recognize.  Asking who this was, I first heard her story.  Suicides have a way of haunting the next generation, and adolescence is when most of us begin to know who we will be.  I believe I became a writer in order to tell her story and possibly redeem it.  This goes much deeper than anything I understand, but, in part, I also joined a church because of her.  I needed to find that woman sacrificed to a savage god.  I needed to make sure she was forgiven and at peace.

The first time I stayed at a monastery hermitage I surfaced one day for Morning Prayer with the community.  My stomach was growling, anticipating breakfast, and I was restless.  A monk read what I’ve since learned is a prayer they say every morning, that all their deceased confreres, oblates, relatives, benefactors, and friends may rest in the peace of the risen Christ.  That morning, I knew it was done; I didn’t have to worry about my aunt any more.  They tell me this is Roman Catholic theology, not Protestant; I couldn’t care less.  Her name was Mary, and she had good pitch.  The church was music to her, and she sang all her life in church choirs.

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