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Author Kathleen Norris says meaningful encounter requires trust, humility, respect

July 1, 2016

Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr. / © CHA
Kathleen Norris

By MARY ANN STEINER

ORLANDO, Fla. — Best-selling author and acclaimed poet Kathleen Norris was the opening keynote speaker at the Catholic Health Assembly here. Norris, who has been a Benedictine oblate for 30 years, is known for such spiritual classics as Dakota: A Spiritual Geographyand The Cloister Walk. As is her custom, she opened her remarks with the reading of a poem.

Her selection, "Primary Wonder" by Denise Levertov speaks of escaping the daily clamor to open to the divine mystery.

In keeping with the 2016 assembly theme of "The Culture of Encounter," Norris talked about the need for a theology of encounter, but emphasized how difficult it is to put that into practice when surrounded by a culture of anti-encounter. Society, she said, mediates against fruitful encounter as people spew hate on the Internet and shout at each other on television news. Insult and dismissal are easy, she explained, whereas encounter is hard.

Encounter relies on personal characteristics of trust, humility, willingness to give time to listen, respect and compassion, Norris spelled out, but it also incorporates an element of surprise. It is the unexpected meeting on surprisingly common ground or the upturned agenda, the author said, that suddenly moves people's careful plans out of reach and replaces them with opportunities to behold, learn about, and engage with people in different, sometimes risky, and often enriching situations.

Norris told stories about convoluted travels, the care of her aging parents and her "connoisseurship" of emergency rooms developed as a result of personal mishaps and during her husband's final illness as instances when she was brought to encounters with good, interesting, brave and honest people she would never have known otherwise.

A mishap last year during a guest teaching stint in Providence, R.I., landed her in the local ER. It was crowded with people suffering the usual maladies as well as those needing care for weather-related breaks and sprains. Her companion of longest duration in the waiting room was a tough-looking, plain-spoken garbage truck driver who told her how he'd given up the freedom and better pay of an over-the-road trucker and followed through with a course of psychological therapy so he could get custody of his kids and keep them out of foster care.

Was it worth it, she had asked him, was it worth all he'd taken on and given up?

Oh, yes, he answered and proceeded to tell her about his kids and their accomplishments. He wasn't likely ever to attend one of her poetry readings; she wasn't likely to follow up with him in Providence. Yet, for one afternoon, they were the best company to each other they could have wanted.

Calling herself an evangelist for poetry, Norris ended her remarks with readings of a number of poems, including works by Laura Gilpin, a nurse; and Dr. Rafael Campo; as well as some of her own, all expressing aspects of the gift of unexpected encounters.

 

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