COLUMBIA — As she stood at the pulpit of Broadway Christian Church on Sunday, Kathleen Norris frankly shared her struggles about caring for her husband, David Dwyer — wiping his behind, emptying his urinals and sponge-bathing him before his death.
Her sermon, “Good for Us to Be Here," was based on words the apostle Peter spoke after he saw Jesus revealed as God's son, a biblical passage known as the Transfiguration. Norris reflected on times when it was hard to see it was "good for us to be here."
Kathleen Norris' sermon, "Good for Us to Be Here," will be available online in written and audio forms later this week through the church's website, BroadwayChristian.net.
“I was glad David was alive, but ‘good for us to be here’ was not exactly at the tip of my tongue,” Norris said dryly, causing the congregation to break out in laughter.
Norris, a Christian poet and a New York Times best-selling author of books such as "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography" and "The Cloister Walk," is known for her thoughtful meditations and wit. She came to Broadway Christian Church over the weekend to lead a workshop on acedia, or spiritual indifference, and preach at the Transfiguration service. At those events as well and during an interview, she shared her thoughts on the upcoming season of Lent, a Christian time of spiritual discipline and reflection that begins this week with Ash Wednesday.
The Rev. Jacob Thorne, associate minister at Broadway Christian, said Norris' willingness to openly share her struggles made her genuine.
"She's just very witty, very quick," Thorne said. "... She sees in her faith journey both the seriousness in it and the humor in it, and how the two live together side by side, not one way or the other."
As she spoke, Norris often told jokes wryly without cracking a smile, which got her audience laughing.
At other times, her serious reflections were met with silence. As she spoke about caring for her husband, Norris described one moment when she woke up and heard him breathing slowly. She was struck by the beauty of the sound.
"The simple thought to me came: these are good times," Norris said. "They don't seem so good, but maybe they are."
Church member Deb Ward said Norris preaches like she writes, with sudden bursts of humor that make her relatable.
“You’re on this high spiritual plane and all of a sudden she plunks you back down into the humanity of us all,” Ward said.
Reflecting on Lent
It was a coincidence Norris visited Broadway Christian Church just in time for Lent. Thorne said he tried to book her for the spring, and it was the only weekend she had open. The timing was perfect for Norris's message about her spiritual experiences.
Thorne sees Lent as a period of darkness one must endure before crossing into the light of Easter Sunday, which celebrates Jesus rising from the dead after he was crucified. In Christianity, the 40-day Lenten season marks the time Satan tempted Jesus in the desert.
"We all pass through darkness," Thorne said. "But if we have a means of articulating it, expressing it, it may make it easier to recognize it ourselves and share that experience with others."
Norris sees Lent as an opportunity for Christians to reexamine their spiritual lives and adjust what is out of balance.
She said one of the most profound memories she has of Lent was when a teenage boy from her church in Hawaii spoke in her confirmation class to say he hated Lent.
“I feel bad about myself anyway,” he said. “Lent always makes me feel worse.”
Norris said many people have negative feelings about Lent because they view it as a burdensome time in which they have to give up something they enjoy, rather than a time to reexamine their lives and grow closer to God.
“The purpose of Lent is not to make you feel bad about yourself, but to focus on more important things rather than silly distractions,” Norris said.
'Arming ourselves against acedia'
While her sermon focused on the Transfiguration, Norris' workshop on Saturday talked about acedia, or the spiritual indifference people feel when they are beyond caring and beyond appreciating the beauty of daily life. She said acedia is appealing because of the idea that if you stop caring, you don't have to feel pain.
"When we suffer from acedia, ordinary daily life seems like a prison," said Norris, whose most recent book is "Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life."
Norris said the little-known term is an ancient one, which used to be part of the "eight bad thoughts" that preceded the seven deadly sins.
"Lent is all about waking us up," she said. "Arming ourselves against acedia can help."
Norris said a daily spiritual practice, such as memorizing psalms, and a supportive Christian community can help counter acedia.
After listening to Norris speak, many church members Thorne spoke with said they were going to try rereading Norris' books or memorizing Scripture for Lent.
The Rev. Rick Frost, retired senior pastor of Broadway Christian, said he liked the idea Norris mentioned of memorizing a psalm or excerpt from the Bible. He said he wants to try memorizing Scripture or a poem for Lent, to take his focus beyond himself.
"And in that, God seems to appear in new ways," Frost said. "For a person who's been ordained 42 years, I need something new every year to do."
Norris, who lives part of the year in South Dakota and the other part in Hawaii, said she plans to spend her Lent cleaning her apartment. As she cleans up the clutter in her home, she’ll focus on memorizing psalms — clearing her living space and clearing her head.
At the workshop, she suggested people go through and pray the psalms. If you're not feeling a certain emotion a psalm expresses at the moment, pray it for someone else who is, she said.
'What ministry is all about'
When Ward asked Norris how the psalms reflect or counter acedia, Norris directed her to Psalm 42, a poem that describes the writer's desperate thirst for a connection with God.
Later that afternoon, Ward opened a Bible in the church library and read Psalm 42 aloud. She said the ending, when the writer turns to praise God in spite of spiritual suffering, is the part that counters acedia.
Ward said people can find hope to fight acedia through Christian community.
"At any given moment you can be in that place, but having someone walk beside you can help pull you out of it," Ward said.
From across the table, the Rev. Nick Larson, associate minister at Broadway Christian, agreed. "You can't tell someone they're not alone," he said. "You have to show them."
"I think that's what ministry is all about," Ward said.
Norris said she turns to ministries when church becomes burdensome, because she cannot get bored when she is distributing food to 200 people and interacting with them.
Other times, she said, you just have to work through periods of spiritual dryness until you find yourself caring deeply.
"We may be most available to God when we're empty," Norris said. "We may be most available to God when we're tired and sweaty, not dressed up for Sunday morning."