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Native evil
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photograph by Arthur tress


BY KATHLEEN NORRIS

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ARTHUR TRESS

My turn to prose writing was occasioned by evil. I began writing my book Dakota in response to what I saw happening around me in western South Dakota in the early 1980s when what is now termed the "farm crisis" first hit. Before then, I had been exclusively a poet.

In an insular culture that looked remarkably homogenous--mostly white, Christian, and working class--I witnessed divisions erupt among people whose families had been close for generations; I saw the scapegoating of people deemed to be outsiders, professionals such as teachers and pastors, or even a ranch family that wasn't "from around here," meaning that its members were first-generation residents, having moved into the area only 30 years ago. We needed someone to blame for the unwelcome changes wrought by the economic crisis, and "outsiders" were convenient targets for the pent-up animosity we did not dare let loose on one another. Sadly, it was young people--couples in their thirties--who most ardently pursued the "undesirables" in our midst, in the vain hope that expelling them would allow for a return to a more prosperous and harmonious time, a past that of course never existed.

One of the myths that small-town people enjoy is that theirs is a magically stable place, a safe harbor in a changing world. And we cling to that illusion in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary: In the last 40 years my town's population has shrunk from 3,500 to less than 1,600; in seven chaotic years during the 1980s, four churches ran through eight pastors, and the school went through six principals and four superintendents. This is serious instability, and our denial of it has led to serious evil. As a priest with parishes in North Dakota put it, "Every year somebody gets crucified. It's usually centered on the school. Someone stirs up controversy, calumny. It's vicious. It's depressing."

Small-town evil may not seem like much in the context of world events, but for me it is global evil in microcosm. Tribal and/or class conflict; the refusal to accept the modern world, partnered with the desire to retreat into a more traditional, golden past that exists mostly in the imagination of a younger generation--all of this front-page news I could see reflected in my little corner of the world. While we in Lemmon, South Dakota, weren't literally sharpening our machetes, the evil was there, and it was homegrown. The annihilating instinct was in our hearts. I felt that I was a witness to something that needed to be described, but my poetry seemed too small a vessel. So I turned to prose.

A saving grace emerged, helping me to survive both the inner and outer turmoil of that time, when I stumbled across a group of my neighbors on the Plains, monasteries of Benedictine men and women in North and South Dakota. I quickly discovered that while the Benedictines are like a tribe--they even have a myth of origin, emerging from Benedict's cave--they do not suffer from tribalism, that evil and ultimately self-destructive mythology that identifies others as less than human. Hospitality is a core Benedictine value, and it provides one of the central paradoxes of monastic life: that the monastery stands apart from the world, yet is radically open to it. This is why you find that monasteries in rural areas--Richardson, North Dakota, for example, or Stearns County, Minnesota--are so often beacons of cosmopolitanism. Out in the middle of nowhere, one might encounter a translator of medieval Dutch mystics, or someone looking at similarities between the Hebrew psalms and the poems of the Veda. One might meet a monk or nun visiting from a Benedictine community in Tanzania, Australia, France, or Colombia, Manila or Tokyo. One might even find a Tibetan monk or nun in residence, participating in a monastic exchange program that has been quietly promoting interfaith dialogue for nearly 40 years.

As I got to know several Benedictine communities, I realized that while monasteries faced all the problems of small town life--insularity, gossip, pigeonholing, the denial and repression of differences--they generally dealt with these problems in a more healthy way, confronting human evil more creatively, and with more awareness.

The people of my small town and church were dealing with evil the way most of us do, most of the time--stupidly, inattentively, responding to the threat of change, or to any perceived threat, by becoming defensive and by acting out old, entrenched, and largely unconscious behavior patterns. This is ordinary human behavior, to which none of us is immune. But the Benedictines had some handy tools for coping with human evil, tools that I found were also available to me: the rule of St. Benedict, the Bible's Book of Psalms, and a sophisticated psychology of temptation with roots in the desert monastic tradition.

The Rule of St. Benedict comes from 6th-century Italy, a time and place at least as violent and unstable as our own; yet Benedict was unwavering in his faith that people could learn to live together peaceably, even though his communities included, as Benedictine monasteries do today, people with strikingly different backgrounds, aptitudes, interests, and theological and political persuasions. Benedict suggested that to remove the thorns of contention that spring up in daily, communal living, it was good for monks to pray the Lord's Prayer together, several times a day. Benedictines have told me that while this practice doesn't work wonders, "It is good, when we're sitting in choir with those who have pissed us off, to be reminded that we are forgiven only as we forgive."

For our own time, what may be most remarkable and useful about the enduring Benedictine tradition is its rejection of fundamentalism. It is a living tradition, demonstrating that people can honor the fundamentals of a 1,500-year-old way of life without seeking to replicate the world of the 6th century, or retreating into an imagined "golden past." Two vows unique to the Benedictine order reflect the creative tension in which they are attempting to live: They take a vow of stability, promising to remain in one particular community all their lives, and also a vow of conversatio morum, which, loosely translated, means "conversion of morals." In essence, it means always remaining open to change, from the inside out.

At the center of monastic life are the Psalms--a community will recite the entire Psalter communally over three or four weeks, and then start over again--and I've come to believe that immersion in the Psalms is the greatest tool Benedictines have in their struggle with evil. It was the 4th-century monk Athanasius who said that the psalms are a mirror to the person singing them. They reflect human beings as we are. Every emotion is there, for good or ill. What strikes modern Americans as "negative" in the Psalms is often just a realistic portrayal of the evil that people perpetrate on one another, massacres, economic oppression, betrayals. The Psalms are like that difficult and priceless friend who won't lie to us about the wrong we do, or the wrong that we harbor in our hearts.

The Psalms, as poems, allow the soul considerable room for exploration; and, as one Benedictine put it, God behaves in the Psalms in ways He is not allowed to behave in systematic theology. Some truths about human experience emerge: God may remain hidden, maddeningly absent or simply asleep, but it is folly to put your trust in princes and rulers, or in material success. The great are an illusion--take their breath, and they and their plans come to nothing.

The Psalms look at human experience through the lens of eternity, and I believe this may help explain why so many Benedictine communities (and those of the Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and other orders whose daily prayer lives are grounded in the psalms) were willing to hide Jews during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their sympathizers may have had all the cards, all the temporal power. But if you believe what the Psalms teach you, military and political power is not what matters in the long run. Justice matters more. Evil has a considerable presence in the Psalms, but we hear over and over that evil is its own reward: My enemy dug a pit for me, and fell in it himself. Malice recoils on the one who acts out of malice.

Many Benedictines I spoke with talked about the necessity of internalizing the enemies spoken of in the Psalms: When you come across an accusation--"You love lies more than truth"--or an image of "enemies pregnant with malice, who conceive evil and bring forth lies," you don't project it out on other people but reflect on how these stark judgments are true of you. The Psalms remind us that we have enemies, people who will act in ways that harm us. But they also remind us that if we wish others ill, and act in ways that oppress other people, particularly the most vulnerable people in a society, we become enemies. What is most striking to me about the monastic encounter with evil is the willingness to acknowledge the evil thoughts that come, and not deny them. One sister put it in terms of embracing evil, observing and engaging it as it works its way through her thoughts. Not even resisting, but simply being attentive to it, noting where the evil thought wants to go. Does it wallow in nursing past slights, swelling with resentment? Does it prompt her toward an act of revenge? Does it turn into a desire for something she doesn't need? Or can she see a virtue hiding on its flipside and choose to act on that?

The sister is practicing spiritual warfare, a tradition at least as old as the Christian monastic tradition. It employs a psychology of temptation that bears little resemblance to what most of us learned in religious education about sin, because it comes from a time before there was a catalog of sins identified by the Church.

The concept of seven deadly sins evolved slowly, originating in the temptations toward evil that the early monks had experienced in themselves, which they eventually characterized as eight bad thoughts. But by the time of my 1950s catechism classes in a Congregational church, this existential sense of sin was lost to me, and the whole idea of sin seemed abstract. It was easy to delude myself into thinking of sins as bad acts that I might succumb to one day but could probably avoid. I could tell myself that if I didn't accumulate a lot of stuff, then I wasn't greedy. If I didn't "make out" with boys, lust wasn't a problem.

The monastic approach to human evil is entirely different, and much more interesting psychologically: It looks at temptations rather than acts, at the bad thoughts that are always distracting us, pulling us away from the present and what we are supposed to be doing. Temptations offer instead a world of fantasy, an indulgence in anxiety or desire. Have I ever been so struck with the fear of being helpless that I became obsessed with the hoarding of goods? Then I have encountered the bad thought of greed. Have I ever let a sexual fantasy take hold of me to such an extent that I ruined a real relationship? Then I have encountered the bad thought of lust. Have I ever lamented over a lost time and place to the extent that my present condition has become abominable to me? Welcome to the bad thought of despair. Have I ever started to pray, and suddenly been overcome by the memory of the wrong another person has done to me? It's the bad thought of anger laying siege.

In my book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, I opened my chapter on the words "good" and "evil" by discussing the way people so often say, "I'm a good person." It's usually a preface to dumping on someone they consider bad. "I'm a good person, I don't cheat on my wife. I don't attack the President (or) I do attack the President." "I'm a good person, I don't engage in homosexual acts (or) I don't engage in homophobia." The litany of self-righteousness that pervades our culture says to me that for all of our therapy and psychological sophistication, we remain remarkably unreflective about ourselves when it comes to our capacity for evil. But the monastic perspective lets no one off the hook. Try this old desert story on for size, maybe substituting the word "terrorist" for "murderer": Abba Poemen said, "If a man has attained to that which the Apostle speaks of--'to the pure all things are pure [Titus 1:15]'--he sees himself as less than all creatures." A brother replied, "How can I deem myself less than a murderer?" and the old man said, "When a man has really comprehended this saying, if he sees a man committing murder, he says, 'He has only committed this one sin, but I commit sins every day.'"

How can I deem myself less than a terrorist? It's an offensive concept, but monasticism was never meant to be pleasing. I sense that when some people think of evil--and especially of those who commit evil acts--they truly believe that they stand apart from it; that they have nothing in common with evildoers. We pride ourselves that we are not anything like the people who would do such things.

A perspective that I find much more useful in my life, and my work, is that of a moral continuum, moving from thought to action. I might harbor a bad thought--a typical one might be the casual notion that an adulterer toys with, thinking how convenient it would be if the spouse were no longer part of the picture. If I allow myself to move along the continuum, toward action, such a thought can lead to actual murder. More commonly, it leads the adulterer to "eliminate" the spouse by acting as if the husband or wife does not exist. Such a thought, however, properly attended to, and contended with, can move us on the continuum, back into the realm of a good thought, a virtue. We might move from "how convenient if this person weren't in my life," to "my God, what am I thinking of!" to a reconsideration of how we are shortchanging the people closest to us. We may become more capable of making a good decision about our relationships.

But it is remarkably easy to remain inattentive to our thoughts, to lose ourselves in them, allowing them to become desires, and then actions. When evil has really taken us over, we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is worthwhile. Psalm 36 says it well: "Sin whispers to sinners in the depths of their hearts. . . . They so flatter themselves in their minds that they know not their guilt. In their mouths are mischief and deceit. All wisdom is gone. They plot the defeat of goodness, as they lie in bed."

I believe that any creative encounter with evil requires that we not distance ourselves from it by simply demonizing those who commit evil acts. In order to write about evil, a writer has to try to comprehend it, from the inside out; to understand the perpetrators and not necessarily sympathize with them. But Americans seem to have a very difficult time recognizing that there is a distinction between understanding and sympathizing. Somehow we believe that an attempt to inform ourselves about what leads to evil is an attempt to explain it away. I believe that just the opposite is true, and that when it comes to coping with evil, ignorance is our worst enemy. I'm going to conclude with a very brief poem on the subject of goodness. In fact, it's called "Goodness":

Despite our good deeds,
The chatter of our best intentions,
our many kindnesses,
God is at work
in us, close
to the bone,
past the sinews
of our virtues, to the marrow
we cannot feel,
the sudden, helpless tears
when we know what we are,
and can go on.

Kathleen Norris is the author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993); The Cloister Walk (1996); Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998); and, most recently, The Virgin of Bennington (2001), an account of her days as a young poet in New York City in the 1970s. The poem "Goodness" appears in her collection Journey (2001), published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.


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