Kathleen Norris

Prayer is not asking for what you think you want,
but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.

(Kathleen Norris)

Excerpts From The Angel Handbook

Be careful how you unfold your wings—
there are some in the world who are not content
unless their teeth are full of feathers

You may find employment with the Sanitation Department
or at any laundry

When you ride subways wear ornate silver shoes
and always stand near the door

When you cross at intersections look both ways, then up
It will often be expedient to altogether remove your wings
from your back, where people will first think to look for them,
and carry them around inside you—
at such times be careful that your hands do not forget
and begin to imitate their beating in your heart,
for if you begin to fly, the police will be called
and you will only confuse them

You will find that you are most free
when you are able to sit still

You will have a great fondness for music,
but be sure to hide your ears when listening to it,
for they will throb and grow

You must listen to what people say
even when they talk to you: this will involve
keeping silent much of the time, and being bored a lot

You will never tell a lie,
but you will have many secrets

At times it will seem that we have deserted you but
when people take you in, you will leave their teacups glowing,
their windows shining

You are not especially alert to danger but at times
you will sense an uncontrollable desire to warn others
of impending doom: to yell “Watch Out!”
as they stroll under low hanging branches,
or along the edges of pits

You will meet some who wear their faces nervously,
who will tell you how it seems
they will not survive.

These are the children; they still have parents,
or still need them

Many things you do will seem strange to them:
remember their savage origins,
be gentle and kind

As you find no situation intolerable,
they will think that you are cruel

Making decisions will be the most natural of tasks
but it will rarely seem necessary to make promises

Their logic will not make sense to you,
their mathematics especially will be impossible,
for you will never be able to divine anything

For amusement, look at the picture books:
angels there have huge white wings, silken robes,
long fine hair, and always look like eunuchs

You will meet some whose faces give a glow
as if they once had halos:
these are the lovers,
you will make a lot of love

and your flights, even though you are careful
to keep them invisible, will make those who love you sad:
they will not understand that you never go anyplace
you’re not meant to be.


Kathleen Norris is the award-winning poet, writer, and author of The New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk; Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life; Dakota: A Spiritual Geography; Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith; and The Virgin of Bennington. Exploring the spiritual life, her work is at once intimate and historical, rich in poetry and meditations, brimming with exasperation and reverence, deeply grounded in both nature and spirit, sometimes funny, and often provocative.

Kathleen Norris has published seven books of poetry. Her first book of poems was entitled Falling Off and was the 1971 winner of the Big Table Younger Poets Award. Soon after, she settled down in her grandparents’ home in Lemmon, South Dakota, where she lived with her husband, the poet David Dwyer, for over twenty-five years. The move was the inspiration for the first of her nonfiction books, the award-winning bestseller Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was selected as one of the best books of the year by Library Journal. With Dakota, she creates in the reader an almost hypnotic awareness of being present in her day-to-day life.

In Lemmon, she joined the Presbyterian Church, where her grandmother had been a member for 60 years. When the church was between full-time pastors, members called on her to fill-in, commenting, “You’re a writer, you can preach.” In 1986 she became an oblate, or associate, of a Benedictine monastery, Assumption Abbey in North Dakota. Subsequently, she spent two years in residence at the Ecumenical (now Collegeville) Institute at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Her next book, The Cloister Walk, is structured as a diary of her monastic experience interspersed with meditations on virgin saints, Emily Dickinson, celibacy, loneliness, monogamy, and a hymnist of the early church, Ephrem of Syria. Some reviewers have compared her portrait of the world of the monastics to the writings of Thomas Merton. Her book Amazing Grace continues her theme that the spiritual world is rooted in the chaos of daily life. In this book, she sheds light on the very difficult theological concepts such as grace, repentance, dogma, and faith. Her intention is to tell stories about these religious concepts by grounding them in the world in which we live.

Her book, The Virgin of Bennington, is a continuous narrative in which she shares the period of her life before Dakota. From her sheltered youth, to her entrée into the New York art world, she describes the internal and external journey of an artistic young woman trying to find a place for herself amid the cultural tumult of the 1960’s and 70’s. Other books include Journey: New and Selected Poems, and Little Girls in Church. Kathleen Norris is the recipient of grants from the Bush and Guggenheim Foundations. Her book, entitled Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, was published in September 2008 and was a New York Times bestseller. It is a study of acedia, the ancient word for the spiritual side of sloth. In it she examines the topic in the light of theology, psychology, monastic spirituality, and her own experience. Norris also appears on the DVD and companion book project titled Embracing a Life of Meaning: Kathleen Norris on Discovering What Matters.

Widowed in 2003, Kathleen Norris now divides her time between South Dakota and Honolulu, Hawaii, where she volunteers at an Episcopal church. She travels to the mainland regularly to speak to students, medical professionals, social workers, and chaplains at colleges and universities, as well as churches and teaching hospitals. For many years she was the poetry editor of Spirituality & Health magazine, and is currently the nonfiction editor of the Saint Katherine Review. She also serves as an editorial advisor to Give Us This Day.

Embracing A Life of Meaning – Kathleen Norris on Discovering What Matters

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