An interview I rather like . . .

As long-time readers of this blog realize, northern Minnesota winters induce a cryogenic state. I have been using this period of prolonged darkness and below zero temperatures to do a lot of writing on two main projects as well as trying to assist those who are pushing forward on the film of Neither Wolf nor Dog. I’ll write more about those various projects as they congeal and take better shape.

But I don’t want you to think I’ve disappeared into the witness protection program, so I’ve decided to send out an interview that a friend brought to my attention recently. I don’t even remember the circumstances under which I gave it, or to whom.

But I like it.

I hope you do, too.


Can you briefly describe your writing philosophy?

My work has been a constant search, from various perspectives, for an authentic American spirituality, integrating our western Judeo-Christian tradition with the other traditions of the world, and especially the indigenous spirituality of the people who first inhabited this continent. Someone once called me a “guerrilla theologian,” and I think that is fairly accurate. I am deeply concerned with the human condition and our responsibility to the earth, the people on it, and the generations to come. I believe that we are, at heart, spiritual beings seeking spiritual meaning, and I try to honor this search wherever I discover it in the course of my daily life.

Your writing seems very poetic in style. Is this something you do consciously?

I take the music of language very seriously. Like a heartbeat, it exists right below consciousness, but it animates and infuses your language with life. As both a reader and a writer, I tend to sub-vocalize, thus making my pacing and thoughts more auditory than conceptual. I want the sentences to aspirate, and pulsate with cadence and internal music. A good sentence should sound good and feel good and roll comfortably off your tongue, not simply serve as a conveyor for ideas.

Who inspires you? Who are your favorite writers?

Donatello, Rainer Maria Rilke, Nelson Mandela, Black Elk, Lao Tzu, good elementary school teachers, caring nursing home workers, and anyone who spends time with people who can offer them no benefit.
I love Graham Greene, Jim Harrison, Annie Dillard, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

You quote the Sioux writer Ohiyesa in Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life. Do you have a favorite quote or thought of his?

I constantly hark back in my own life to his comment about spirituality: “Whenever, in the course of our day, we might come upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime – the black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset – we pause for an instant in an attitude of worship.” This, it seems to me, is the key to a humble appreciation of the gift of life we have been given and a proper way of honoring the Great Mystery we have come to call God.

What makes you hopeful about the future?

I am hopeful for human beings because I believe that, at heart, we all seek the same thing – a chance to love and be loved, to raise good children, and to live in peace with our neighbors and families. That we so consistently fail to do so is troubling. And I admit to being deeply upset by the selfishness that is abroad in our own land – believing that we must look out first and foremost for ourselves – and the tendency, both here and abroad, to use religious belief to justify cruelty toward others.

When you write, do you ever feel that something greater than yourself is providing the words or ideas?

Alas, no. I wish I did. But I do believe that we are all God’s hands here on earth, and that in and through my writing I must endeavor to do God’s work, however one chooses to define or give a shape to God.

You write about experiences you’ve had that suggest you’ve studied with various spiritual traditions. What’s been particularly helpful or pivotal in your path?

I love the Beatitudes from the Christian tradition, the use of natural forces as analogy in the Taoist tradition, and the spiritual commitment to the power of the earth in the Native American traditions. I believe we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, that the ways of force and acquiescence shown in nature must govern an integrated and balanced life, and that each person must, indeed, find his or her own spiritual path and live each day with an attitude of prayerful awareness.

Do you recommend spending time in nature?

Let me quote Ohiyesa again. “All who have lived much out of doors, whether Indian or otherwise, know that there is a magnetic and powerful force that accumulates in solitude but is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd.” We should all seek the healing and clarifying power of nature so that our spiritual focus and power is not allowed to dissipate.

You talk about the importance of ritual in Small Graces. Are there any rituals or practices you’d recommend to someone seeking a more spiritually focused life?

Prayer – not as petition, but as reflection and contemplation. Mentoring. Service with no thought of recognition. I know these are not specific. But each person must find his or her specific expression of these general principles. Helping a child or an elder or someone in need will do more for one’s spiritual focus than closing any deal or building any building or achieving any position of fame or celebrity.

Do you believe that “coincidences” may be more than that?

I believe in the subtle power of intention – again, like the Taoist belief in the slow, inexorable power of water – and I believe that the miracle of life cannot be accidental. As to whether there is a force that guides our every move and shapes outcomes for some greater or smaller purpose, I don’t occupy myself with that thought. All I know is that I must be God’s hands on earth, and I must express thanks for the goodness that befalls me. Whether my actions are guided or determined is not something I contemplate.

Do you believe in miracles?

Interventionist miracles? I’m not sure. The general miracles of two people creating a child, the impenetrability of death, the endlessly renewing human experience of love? Yes. I guess I believe that God embedded the miraculous in the ordinary, and it is our task to discover it and celebrate it.

Do you ever imagine some sort of ideal world somewhere in the future? What’s it like?

I am less a visionary than a caretaker. I have seen too much sadness and injustice to have any faith in an ideal world. I admire those who do, and I believe they are the ones who should lead us. But I am more concerned with the alleviation of human suffering and the fostering of human kindness than I am with overall visions.

Do you plan to write more books like The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life?

I see The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life as a part of a trilogy that includes my two other books, Simple Truths: Clear and Gentle Guidance on the Big Issues in Life, and Small Graces.

Hidden Beauty is an expansion and elaboration of the core idea in Small Graces, that we may not all live holy lives, but we all live lives that are alive with holy moments. Whereas Small Graces followed a single day, Hidden Beauty ranges farther afield, casting its glance on such events as standing before one of Donatello’s sculptures in a cathedral in Florence, Italy; watching a legless man in a wheelchair fly a kite in the sunset over Gallup, New Mexico; and attending a native funeral on an Indian reservation deep in the woods of northern Minnesota.

Simple Truths addresses the fundamental issues of being human, like love, work, parenthood, tragedy and suffering, loneliness and solitude, old age, and death. It was really a book inspired by my desire to express, in the clearest and most heartfelt way of which I was capable, those things that I think it is important for my children to know about life.

I guess a better way to say it would be that Simple Truths sets out to speak of a life well-lived, while Small Graces and Hidden Beauty show us the ordinary, everyday events that serve as epiphanies of such a life. Small Graces is more a celebration of the moments close to home, while Hidden Beauty casts its vision at the larger world around us.

Whether I will write more books like this depends on whether or not I feel I have something new and meaningful to say. I always want my small books to move gently over deep waters. Should I find myself traveling over such waters in the future, and feel that I have the words and insights to give expression to their depths, I will happily write more books like Simple Truths, Small Graces, and Hidden Beauty.

You have a lot of wonderful quotes at the beginning of each chapter of Small Graces. Is there one that’s particularly special to you?

I believe in them all. But I would think that the essence of my philosophy about life is in the quote, “We are not all called to be great. But we are all called to reach out our hands to our brothers and sisters, and to care for the earth in the time we are given.”

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Seek the unseen in life. Celebrate the ordinary. Serve the weak rather than currying the favor of the powerful. Find a way to direct your life towards God. And live for the seventh generation rather than for yourself. Most of all, follow the invitation of the Lakota chief, Sitting Bull, “Come, let us put our minds together to see what kind of life we can create for our children.” To live in such a way would be a worthy legacy and an honorable gift of thanks for having had the privilege of sharing in this miraculous experience we call “life.”

4 thoughts on “An interview I rather like . . .”

  1. You’re right, a stunning interview with a deeply inspirational message. Just what I needed to begin my day, a little injection of Mr. Nerburn’s faith and philosophy. Thank you for sharing!
    Hey, do you make this in an IV version to GO, you know, like a morphine drip type thing? I could use a little pick me up every now and then…

  2. Such wonderful,deep and personally honest sharing! Your words always help me in solidifying and expressing my own spiritual search.I read this quote in the book Gilead-“You must not judge what I know by what I find words for.” You often help me find my words and I thank you for that! It is always lovely to “hear” your encouraging voice. Thank you for this!

  3. Dr. Nerburn,

    Tiffany Red Cloud called me on Monday to let me know that Ellen Moves Camp died on Saturday night. I was so grateful to Tiffany for letting me know. She was hoping I could come to the funeral since I knew Ellen. With the impending storm I don’t think that I will be able to go.

    Tiffany shared a wonderful experience with me: On Saturday about midnight her dog started barking like crazy, the door on her house blew open and then blew shut. She got up to look around but could find nothing out of the ordinary. When she found out on Sunday that Ellen had passed, she knew it was Ellen coming to say good-bye. I love this idea.

    I can’t believe I had the good fortune to know Ellen even if for a very short time. I had just mailed a letter to she and her family on Monday telling them how anxious I was to talk with Ellen when I visit in June. I’ve read quite a bit about her and am in awe of her. I am only sorry I didn’t know more when I met her; I would have certainly paid closer attention to her and asked her more about her history.

    I am stunned at the kindness I have been shown by the Oglala Lakota people. There is no reason for anyone at Pine Ridge to trust me or care anything about me, given their history with whites. However, I have been welcomed into homes, taught some fabulous Indian jokes, and invited to join in the Veterans’ Powwow in June. My heart has been opened and my understanding of what is truly important in life deepened.


    PS Peggy loves her new car!!

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