We need saints today and we need a variety of them. They don’t all look the same, as we commonly suppose. Some saints do have the gaunt, ascetical look, that artists fancy – Mother Theresa, Gandhi; others have cigarettes in their mouths and look like Dorothy Day. There’s Padre-Pio types, in monks’ robes, the very persona of popular piety, and then there’s Thomas-More types, walking around looking ruggedly healthy.
One particular saint we much need today is a contemporary St. Augustine, someone to do for us what Augustine did for his generation. What was that?
Augustine was born in North Africa in 354, grew up there, worked for a while as an itinerant scholar in Italy, and eventually returned to North Africa where he died in 430. By temperament and talent, he was a scholar, and a very good one, but he was conscripted, against his will and temperament, to be a bishop. He served in that role, more pastoral than scholarly, for most of his adult years. He was also a man with a colourful past, converting to Christianity at 25 after a long, difficult intellectual and moral struggle and then spending another 9 years getting his life in line with his beliefs.
What makes him so important and influential, both in his own time and in the subsequent history, is not his colourful past – which is generally overrated in terms of its influence on his theology and spirituality – but his brilliance which he combined so naturally with his faith. Here was a saint, someone humbly committed within the faith community, who brought to that community an extraordinary capacity to articulate both a synthetic structure and working-vocabulary for their faith life. Theologically his framework became the basis for much of subsequent Christian theology in the West. His secular influence is monumental. Very few people have influenced history as much as Augustine. By marrying the concepts of Greek philosophy to the concepts of Judeo-Christianity at a particular time in history, he, in effect, wrote the conceptual software that the Western world today calls “common sense”. For better and for worse, we think in Augustine’s framework.
What we need today is for someone to do for us what Augustine did in his time, namely, help us to find a vocabulary for our faith that works for us. The faith, of course, always works, but the language we use to talk about it often doesn’t. We need a new Augustine. Easier said than done. He was an extraordinary man and not every generation produces such a person. But every generation, our own no less than others, does produce women and men who have, perhaps not to the same high degree that Augustine had these, the talent, passion, aesthetic sensibility, and humble commitment to the community of faith that Augustine had. Our own Augustine might even parallel Augustine vis-a-vis his colourful past, though that is not a sine quo non for doing what he did.
To my mind, in the English-speaking world today, one of the persons who fits that description is Kathleen Norris – a lay woman, a deeply committed Christian, a Presbyterian, a lay Benedictine, a writer, an artist, and a poet, who lives and writes out of South Dakota. In the area of theology and spirituality, she has written three important works: Dakota, A Spiritual Geography; The Cloister Walk; and Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith. Three works in the area of popular spirituality admittedly do not exact the same measuring stick as one uses to assess the importance of Augustine, whose works number more than 6000 pages, engage classical philosophy at its core, and systematically take up nearly the full range of critical questions in theology, but that isn’t the point here. There will never be another Augustine, never can be. Times have changed and no one can be a doctor in all disciplines any more, nor indeed a full doctor in even one. Knowledge in every field has proliferated and specialized to a point where one can get a comprehensive grasp of only a fraction of the whole. What we need now are a number of Augustines.
Kathleen Norris, to my mind, is one of these. Like Augustine, she brings something special. What exactly?
Simply put, she brings to the table some of the rare qualities he did: an extraordinary intelligence combined with a humble faith commitment, the artistry of a poet emanating from the pen of someone who prays, the experience of a person with a colourful past who has matured into post- sophisticated child-likeness, and a certain pathological sanity that has it feet planted solidly on the ground. To this, she adds the realism and earthiness of someone who has to struggle to pay bills, a depth of soul that personal tragedy brings, the insight that comes from drinking at the deep wells of monasticism, and a robust sense of humour.
Kathleen Norris is an important, eminently sane, and healthy voice within the Christian community today. She deserves to be read.