THE American Great Plains these days would not seem to be a place for fertile exploration, natural or intellectual. Much of the vast landscape is emptying out as farms go under (or are taken over by corporations) and as rural towns dwindle in population. It's a world that in many ways seems to be stuck in an earlier, less relevant age.
But it's also a place where things timeless and deep can be found, offering gifts of grace and revelation, as Kathleen Norris so beautifully proves in "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography." Her collection of essays merges history and social observation with personal religious exploration.
Twenty years ago, Norris and her husband moved from New York to Lemmon, S.D., which has a population of just 1,600 but still is the largest town in an area nearly twice the size of Massachusetts. For Norris, it was a move back to family roots, the home of her mother and grandmother, where she had spent summers as a girl.
Here, the Norrises became part of the community, although for years afterward they continued to be seen as partial outsiders by many whose families had been there for continuous generations. This dual background - of but not from the place - gave Norris a unique perspective from which to tell the region's defining stories, which she does with an insight that is both clear-eyed and compassionate. These are poignant stories of a place and people facing inevitable economic and social change while trying to preserve their values.
The Plains are typically defined by their landscape as well as the sturdiness of their inhabitants. While some find them frightening (or merely boring) in their vastness, Norris perceives more. "Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon," she observes. "What seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state." She is thus drawn to the worship and communion of the 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 on Sunday morning, recognizing, however diml y, 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?"
Norris is named a lay preacher in the Presbyterian Church, but she also becomes an oblate (associate) in a community of 65 Benedictine monks and a frequent visitor at other monasteries as well.
And as her paradoxical relationship with "a community of celibate Roman Catholic men" deepens, she realizes something else as well: "That their hospitality was functioning as true hospitality should, helping me to become who I wanted to be as a writer, as a wife, even as a Presbyterian, and that this was as it should be."
Just as the quiet emptiness of the Plains becomes Norris's spiritual and literary monastery, so do the community and her neighbors - and especially the small churches where she worships and occasionally preaches - become more to her than they would appear:
"Maybe we're all anachronisms in Dakota, a bunch of hicks, and the fact that the images in many old hymns, images of seed and wheat, planting and reaping, images as old as the human race and as new as the harvest in the fields around Hope Church, really aren't relevant anymore. Twenty-five Presbyterian farmers, or a handful of monks for that matter, don't have much to say to the world.
"And yet I wonder, I wonder if a church like Hope doesn't teach the world in the way a monastery does, not by loudly voicing its views but by existing quietly in its own place."
"Poets and Christians," Norris writes, "are people who believe in the power of words to effect change in the human heart."
In "Dakota" she clearly succeeds on both counts.