Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris

I read most of Amazing Grace while listening to the Pan’s Labyrinth soundtrack: a big chunk on the beach and another chunk while sitting in my car on my lunch break. I didn’t do that on purpose, but I realized later that the soundtrack of a “fairy tale for grownups” is, in many ways, a suitable accompaniment for this book, which focuses on the wonder and mystery of the language of Christianity.

When Kathleen Norris returned to church after a long absence, she found that much of the vocabulary was intimidating and frightening. As she reclaimed many of these words for herself, she used her background in poetry to help her embrace the mystery rather than forcing her faith into rigid black-and-white definitions. Amazing Grace is comprised of those definitions, each one a short essay on a topic or word that seemed impenetrable to her when she found herself in the faith environment.

I appreciated this book because, while there are things I do think are fundamental for Christian belief, the idea that we can cross every t and dot every i is very unappealing to me. I am not interested in having every tenet of my faith wrapped up in a neat little box, or having everything completely defined in terms of right and wrong. For crying out loud, I believe in a virgin birth and in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. We’re treading some pretty mysterious ground. At the same time, this book was not anti-intellectual. It doesn’t force a false dichotomy between God and reason, looking instead at the bigger picture of the mystery of our relationship with God and what it looks like in a broken world.

I said I’d been doing a lot of reading on community – it was a focus of this book as well. This time around, Kathleen Norris has experienced most of her Christianity in two different communities – the small church she attends (in the small community where she lives) and in the monastery where she served as an oblate. In both of those situations, she has been forced to share life with people as she worships and serves with them. She talked honestly about the challenges and difficulties of that, but also spoke with a lot of joy about how refining it is.

I read Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris last year on our trip to Florida, so I was excited to find a used copy of this one to take with me on this year’s trip. This is a book that you could read over and over, finding new insight to savor, and I definitely plan to read it again, this time with a notebook.

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