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
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
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
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
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.