Many years ago, my husband Jim and I took our young children back to Rhode Island to visit relatives. Jim had graduated from Providence College there, which is run by Dominican fathers, and one afternoon we gave a carful of kids, ours and some little cousins, a campus tour.
Jim pointed out his dorm, the library, all the usual campus spots, and then he pointed to a small, understated graveyard and said, “That’s where they bury the Dominicans.”
A little voice from the backseat piped up innocently, “If that’s where they bury the Dominicans, where do they put the Puerto Ricans?”
That story, forever imbedded in family lore despite the fact that the questioner is now an attorney with two kids, came back to me the other day when I attended a two-day retreat with the author and spiritual writer Kathleen Norris.
Norris is the author of such classics as “Dakota,” “The Cloister Walk,” and “Acedia and Me.” Although she is a Protestant, she is also a Benedictine Oblate, has spent much time in monasteries and is considered an expert on the early church fathers.
Her writing has the easy, conversational style that draws you in and makes you care about people like Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory the Great, and a guy named Evagrius Ponticus, an early monk who advised us to “first, know yourself.” These people all seem to have keys to help you in that quest.
Norris taught a course on the desert fathers at Providence College last year. Her students, she said, were mostly Catholic high school graduates, seemed fairly knowledgeable about their faith and acquainted with such standouts as Saint Thomas Aquinas.
But the desert fathers? Who?
I’m sure when the course was over, Norris had drawn them in, too. But like the little guy who wondered where the Puerto Ricans were, most of us have gaps in our faith history.
Norris points out that Judeo-Christianity begins in a desert, and advises us to read Exodus again. There, our ancestors sought escape from slavery, but began to question God’s faithfulness. “Did God lead us here to kill us?” they asked. The desert is challenging, but God remains faithful.
Later, the early Christians meet persecution. But when Constantine establishes Christianity as the official religion of the empire, things change, not all for the better. Institutionalization erodes simplicity and asceticism. It aligns faith with power, and power can corrupt.
So, for many Christians, it was back to the desert and the beginnings of monasticism.
I’ve dug out all Norris’ books and begun to reread them. I’d recommend any of them. She recommended “The Wisdom of the Desert” by Father Thomas Merton as a good summary for one, like me, who doesn’t know much about early monasticism.
Norris’ writing makes me aware that the desert is not an academic pursuit. The desert finds all of us, she says. And we have much to find in the desert.