There is a hidden meaning, a hidden beauty, in life’s most ordinary moments. It is the beauty of the human heart revealed, where what we have in common is greater than what keeps us apart. If we can learn to see the beauty in these moments, whether they are in the light or in the shadow, we become witnesses to the spiritual, testimonies to the sacred. We become true artists of the ordinary, and our life becomes a masterpiece, painted in the colors of the heart.
A chance encounter with a boy on a bicycle, a young girl’s graduation from eighth grade — these and other small moments are the subjects of this beautifully written collection. In elegant prose, Kent Nerburn uncovers the wonder hidden just beneath the surface of everyday life, offering poignant glimpses into the grace of ordinary days.
Whether he’s describing a kite’s dance on the winds above the high New Mexico desert, a funeral on an isolated Indian reservation, or a dinnertime conversation with family and friends, Kent Nerburn is among a handful of writers capable of moving so gently over such deep waters. Ordinary Sacred reveals the hidden beauty waiting to be discovered in each and every life.
Kent Nerburn is an author, sculptor, and educator who has been deeply involved in Native American issues and education. He developed and directed an award-winning oral history project on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. In addition to being a program evaluator for the Minnesota Humanities Commission and serving on their selection board, he has served as a consultant in curriculum development for the American Indian Institute in Norman, Oklahoma, and has been a presenter before various groups, including the National Indian Education Association and the President’s blue-ribbon panel on Indian Education.
Nerburn has edited three highly acclaimed books on Native American subjects: Native American Wisdom, The Wisdom of the Native Americans, and The Soul of an Indian. Nerburn is also the author of Letters to My Son; Neither Wolf Nor Dog, winner of the Minnesota Book Award for 1995; The Wolf at Twilight; Simple Truths: Clear and Gentle Guidance on the Big Issues of Life; Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life; and Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life.
Kent Nerburn holds a PhD in both Theology and Art and lives with his family in northern Minnesota.
Ordinary Sacred – Stories from Kent Nerburn
Kent Nerburn talks about his life and his latest book, Ordinary Sacred. This little gem of a book is full of intensely personal recollections that poignantly reveal truths we can all resonate with. With his artist’s eye Kent offers these shining moments of revelation to us, and we come away so enriched.
Listen to the entire interview at http://www.ncreview.com/interviews/ordinary-sacred-with-kent-nerburn
A Talk with Kent Nerburn, author of Ordinary Sacred
By Kent Nerburn
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was born and raised near Minneapolis. Perhaps the most formative experience of my childhood was going out with my father, who worked for the Red Cross, when he went to help victims of fires and floods who had lost their homes, their possessions, and, sometimes, their families. He would get the same calls as the fire department, and we would often arrive simultaneously, often in the deepest night, and confront the same tragedies the police and firemen confronted, only our responsibility was to provide aid and comfort. These experiences gave me a profound understanding of human suffering and hope, and left me with an indelible belief in a life of service. They also taught me how fragile our good fortune is, and how lucky and blessed I have been to live the life I’ve lived.
After high school I went to the University of Minnesota in American Studies, then to Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities, then to Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where I received a Ph.D. in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley. My doctorate was in Religious Studies and Art. For many years I devoted my life to creating over-life sized sculptures from tree trunks. My heroes and mentors were Michelangelo, Donatello, and Rodin.
After returning to Minnesota, I moved north to the pine and lake country near the Canadian border, where my wife and I got married and have lived ever since. For several years I worked on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation helping students collect the memories of the tribal elders. This changed my life and introduced me to the native spiritual traditions that have become so central to the message in my writings.
I switched to writing from sculpture about 15 years ago when I realized that I could reach more people as a writer and that I had skills in that area.
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 “guerilla 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.
My wife and I live on a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota, where on good days we can listen to the whispering of the birches and the cries of the loons on the lake, and on bad days we huddle against -40 degree temperatures and winds swirling like banshees outside our window. We are down from four kids, two cats, and a dog, to just a single dog – Lucie, a sweet golden lab cross. The two cats, sadly went to their feline rewards, and the kids are spread out over the highways and byways of America.
Your writing seems very poetic in style. Is this something you do consciously, or is this just the way the words flow out?
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 subvocalize, 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?
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.
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.
Do you have a favorite writer or book?
I love Graham Greene, Jim Harrison, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
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.
There are days, however, when I feel like I’m standing in a sunlight not of my own making.
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.
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 everyday 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.
What do you want people to take away from Ordinary Sacred?
An attitude of mindfulness. There is magic in every stone and star, a miracle in every child, and mystery in every encounter. We can’t always live in a state of exalted awareness – God knows, I certainly don’t. But if we are always mindful of another dimension of reality and open to its appearance in our lives, sometime, in the course of every day, the sacred will break through and touch us, if only for a moment. Ordinary Sacred is my attempt to stop before these profoundly ordinary moments in my own life and place them before you to remind you to look for them in your own life. If they are in my life, they are in yours. We need only to be humble enough, quiet enough, and mindful enough, to hear them when they speak.
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.” And remember that we do not all live holy lives, but we live in a world alive with holy moments.