Festival of Faith and Writing – “Looking Backward, Looking Inward”

The last afternoon session I caught on Friday was Looking Backward, Looking Inward: Scott Cairns and Kathleen Norris in conversation. Scott grew up in the GARBC, and Kathleen was raised as a presbyterian. Katherine is still presbyterian, but is also now an oblate of a Benedictine order, and Scott converted to Greek Orthodoxy a few years back, so a lot of the talk focused on that.

Kathleen Norris said that growing up in a secular environment, she found herself looking for people who wouldn’t laugh when you said “religious experience”. She studied psychology for a period, and said that “psychology makes a pretty good substitute for religion, up to a point.” She referred a couple of times to fortuitous moments in her life, and said “I guess I’d call it, not blind luck, but blind grace.”

Scott talked about how, when he told his priest he wanted to convert to Greek Orthodoxy, his priest asked him “What are you now? A Christian, right? Don’t say convert, say embracing finally the fullness of the faith,” and mentioned that some of those he grew up with think he has left the faith. He told us that when you become aware of the breadth of faith, you are free to make the choice about which to be a part of, or to stay and help those in your faith tradition understand the same. “The difference to me came down to living a faith, embodying the faith, not just believing the faith.”

Kathleen Norris told a story about the value of communal prayer, how “when you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer or pray the Psalms, there are others who can carry you along.”

Discussing the liturgy, Scott said “You become the Christian you are to be bit by bit; the liturgy helps me become that person.”

Norris talked about her time spent in monasteries, and said the movie Into Great Silence (Jeffrey Overstreet’s favorite film of last year, and number three on my list) recaptured the feelings she had during those times better than anything else she has experienced. She expanded on the reasons she likes visiting monastery, but then talked about being in the opposite environment, having lived in Manhattan, and said “I think sometimes that sacred space is found in an encounter with another person.”

She told us she watches a lot of movies, and said that a movie that draws us to show compassion for a character that we wouldn’t normally give more than a scornful glance to is, by her definition, a Christian movie. And so, she declared, with trepidation, that Clerks 2 and Borat are Christian movies, in that sense. “When humor and compassion mix, it is a wonderful thing.”

On the subject of religious experiences, of faith, Scott said “Inevitably you are going to come up with ways of talking about faith, but you can take it too far. You can fine tune it to the point that you are no longer talking about faith.”

Near the end of their conversation, Scott recounted what ended up being my favorite story from the whole festival. After “embracing finally the fullness of the faith,” he has taken several trips to Greece to talk with monks who have become his spiritual guides. On one trip, he was outside one of the monasteries of Mount Athos, having been engrossed in conversation with Father Iákovos for several hours, when a tourist, a Baptist minister, approached them and interrupted. He demanded of Father Iákovos, “Do you have Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” Father Iákovos looked up, paused for a moment, then replied, “No, I like to share him with others.”

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