Norvene is an author, workshop leader, and spiritual director, interested particularly in lifelong growth in the Spirit. She is an oblate, or lay affiliate, of the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia, in Bristow, VA, and is deeply committed to Benedictine values.
Dr. Vest is intentionally reflective in this liminal or threshold time, about herself and the world, as she explores ways to live creatively with chaos and uncertainty, grounded in spiritual practice and community. Her family of origin moved from Illinois to California when she was fifteen years old, and until she and her husband Doug moved to Charlottesville, VA in 2010, she considered herself a Californian. However, the lure of family on the East Coast prevailed, and she much enjoys experiencing the seasons and the prevailing green natural environment. Norvene’s first graduate degree was in Political Theory, the second in Public Administration, the third in Theology, and the last in Mythology in the Tradition of Depth Psychology (as ways to enshrine views of the sacred). Early on, Dr. Vest served as public servant and political appointee in federal, state, and local housing and community development programs. Mid-career, Norvene shifted focus to adult spiritual formation, of which more below.
Dr. Vest is a feminist theologian, emphasizing embodied, relational theology and inclusive of divine feminine images. Overall, she lives and teaches foundational Christian themes, such as prayer, scripture, and life-long spiritual growth. Norvene emphasizes a participatory model of adult formation, bridge building based on awareness of the sacredness in all, and peace-making in her teaching and learning. She is a skilled moderator of small group processes, always grateful for the mystery of renewal wherever and whenever it appears.
She is an Episcopal laywoman, member of St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Spiritual Directors International, the Benedictine Academy, and a respected teacher and guide regarding the spiritual life.
Rather than continuing with a formal list of accomplishments and interests, I’d like to share here some of the inner reflections that took me from a political focus to a spiritual one. Do these two fields appear to be compatible interests?
As a graduate student in Berkeley, CA, my studies were in political theory. But political theory, as I came to understand it, has little to do with the crass gamesmanship that characterizes US politics today. The most basic concerns of Western political philosophy find their beginnings in the Greek city-states (the polis) shaped by the wisdom of such astute observers of the human condition as Plato and Aristotle.
In those early times, the forms of human inquiry had not yet been separated into the categories of religion, philosophy, ethics, and so forth. Western political theory then and since has concerned itself with such questions as the nature of the good life of the person, seen inseparably from the nature of the good community and by extension the nature of Good itself. The “political” arrangement was about what was common to the whole, what was optimum for the unfolding of life. What is “natural” to human beings raised in this way of life, and how can communal arrangements be designed to support the best of human nature? What evokes tension and how are conflicts over resources resolved in a manner perceived by all as just? How can both stability and innovation be supported?
In short, how is meaning made visible in human society? The goal of such conversations is not to produce final and definitive answers to such questions, but rather to find the questions and invite the participants that enable a community to be healthy and creative. Today we understand that participants in such conversations must include not only many humans of differing experiences, but also must involve the physical world and all creation; and our past failures to do this are causing serious problems in our present world. Nonetheless, my early studies focused my attention on the question of what underlying set of values and corresponding arrangements can evoke both the individual’s best and the community’s strengthening.
“More than a Metaphor”
Life’s unfolding traces helixes
. . .filled with twists and turns
into three dimensions.
What seems at first like tracing circles
getting nowhere slowly,
brings depth and forward movement.
. . .I choose
to walk imagined separation
between “the church”
with one foot lovingly emplaced in each
in both doubt and faith.
Such interlacing, I’ve concluded,
about a fuller universe—
finding truth in each,
though sometimes feeling bridge-like,
and walked on from each side
long posed as mutually opposing.
You will not be surprised to know that my early working years were within the “Great Society” of the Johnson and Kennedy presidencies, with the hope of significantly reducing poverty and suffering in America. Yet gradually I began to sense that public institutions tend to be unwieldly, focused as they often are on short cycles until the next election, thus giving low priority to long-term solutions for deeply rooted issues of poverty and the like. After fifteen years, I sought to find a way beyond individualism, rationality and progress, and found myself drawn back into the Christian community of my youth. I returned to school, this time to seminary, to seek the integration of my commitment to human values with an expanding consciousness of Divinity at work within all aspects of daily life.
Not only did I obtain graduate degrees in theology and mythology, but I was gifted with the wisdom of contemporary monastics as founded in the sixth century by St. Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica. My first published book was a devotional commentary on St. Benedict’s Rule, now used in many monastic communities as well as by laity all over the world. The pattern of Benedictine spirituality is not primarily that of renunciation, but is rather empowerment for transformation, because creation is penetrated with the sacred. The physical is valued as a necessary support for the spirit, including the human body, all created life, and earth itself. Personal maturity is understood to be strengthened by participation in a small faith community, with both its support and its challenges. Benedictines, both monastics and others who live the common life, are expectant that Christ is revealed within the daily round. Experience within the life of faith is a complement to and corrective of theologies and vice versa.
Much of the rest of my story is revealed in my books, workshops and spiritual direction, unfolding now over forty years. I hope you will continue to join me in this exciting ministry.
Doug’s previous work in physics gave him understanding of fractals, which contemporary physics calls “chaos theory.”
“Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena chaos theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control. Yet, recognizing the chaotic, fractal nature of our world can give us new insight, power, and wisdom.” – FractalFoundation.org
I don’t recall
when or how
I first became aware of my existence.
But, whenever it was,
I was already here.