Neither Wolf’s Kent Nerburn invites us on a new pilgrimage

Kent Nerburn ranks among America’s beloved storytellers and spiritual guides. His specialties in past books include the natural world, Native American wisdom, the relationships between parents and their children—and the many ways that fine arts are a catalyst to insight. He began his career as a theologian and sculptor. But, he is most famous, today, for Neither Wolf nor Dog, required reading on Native Americans’ relationships with non-Indians (along with its more recent sequel The Wolf at Twilight). Inspirational quotations from Nerburn’s many published works, especially his book on fatherhood Letters to My Son and his Wolf books, are sprinkled liberally across the Internet these days. Even the celebrated guru Eckhart Tolle sings praises for Nerburn’s newest volume.

In Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life, Nerburn gives us a handy companion for a personal pilgrimage wherever we find ourselves living today. Even this book’s cover with its barn-wood imagery, compact size and comfortable-to-the-fingers matte finish makes it a perfect book for a long walk or a quiet afternoon in a favorite corner.

At first, the vivid vignettes in Ordinary Sacred may seem like disconnected gems. The book opens with Kent inviting us to travel across the northern prairies, an echo of the Wolf adventures. Then, we drop South for a brief detour along a stretch of legendary Route 66. But, wait a minute! We’re also stopping by Oxford University and, suddenly, we’re in Florence contemplating the works of great masters. Around that point in the book, we discover that these aren’t random gems. Rather, this is a string of beads. This is a pilgrimage. And, in the end, when we stand with the author in “The Circle,” one of this slim book’s final stops, the wisdom of this journey comes home to us like a lump in the throat.

That’s what makes this book, at the start of Lent 2012, a perfect Lenten reader. Of course, ReadTheSpirit is urging readers to consider our own 40-day, 40-chapter Lenten reader, Our Lent: Things We Carry. But Nerburn’s 13-part Ordinary Sacred is another kind of Lenten pilgrimage. There’s no explicitly Christian message here, yet this cycle of stories moves through a long spiritual journey toward a death, a burial and transcendence. Truly, these are Lenten themes. At its root, this book and Nerburn’s entire body of work remind us that all journeys are sacred, all places along the way are sacred and, ultimately, all moments are sacred, if we have eyes and ears and hearts to recognize the truth.

Do you find yourself generally non-religious, but yearning for deeper daily connections between your life and the larger living world around us? Or, do you find yourself deeply religious, yet mired in the sameness of your congregation’s weekly disciplines? In either case, Ordinary Sacred is your invitation to a potent journey into a deeper and a wider world.

This week, we welcome our friend and colleague Kent Nerburn back to the pages of ReadTheSpirit, where Editor David Crumm has interviewed the author and artist at the start of this Lenten season. Later this week, we will publish our full interview, but today we share what Kent had to say about …

Ordinary Sacred by Kent Nerburn
… as a Companion for Lent

In our interview, Kent Nerburn says this about Lent …

I would love it if readers took hold of this book as a reader for Lent. When I began writing this book, I thought of it almost as a classic Book of Hours, moving through the day from Matins to Vespers. That became an underlying theme in this book, definitely a part of its spiritual arc. The sections move from Dawn’s Awakening to Night’s Embrace.

These days, I don’t practice as a Catholic anymore, but the Christian tradition will always be a part of my life. These religious traditions have a wisdom far greater than anything we could create on our own as individuals. So, this book really is an effort to touch both religious touchstones and broader spiritual touchstones, as well.

In my own days of theological training, I was guided by the Imitation of Christ and scripture and in these texts you see always see this shadow of crucifixion behind everything. As an artist, I’ve sculpted figures who are caught up in this deep spiritual experience. I came out of pre-Vatican II Catholicism and my life has been a long journey from those early heavy burdens of teachings like original sin toward my own celebration of the joy and mystery of life.

From my earliest Catholicism all the way through graduate school, I took Lent very seriously. It was the season I found that I could enter into most completely. In about 1980 or 1981, I had a chance to live in a Benedictine monastery in British Columbia so that I could do a sculpture for the monastery. I agreed that I wouldn’t sign the work. There was this medieval notion of an artist doing all to glorify God. But, when I got there, these Benedictines presented some issues that I found difficult to swallow. I didn’t like the abbot. He seemed venal to me. He talked about poverty, but I perceived him as living with a wealth like some King Henry VIII. And, I wound up crossing swords with him more than once. I thought about leaving.

Then, at one point, he said to me: “Stay in the machine, Kent. It’ll clean you out.” And, now, that’s the way I look at Lent. I lived with those Benedictines through Lent and shared their life, their rituals, the Mass. I was back to being that Catholic child, where I began life.

I wasn’t the equal of these men. Their Lenten experience, after their years together in the monastery, was intense—so intense that many of them reached Easter and I saw them finally breaking down in tears. These were quiet men, but they had entered so deeply into the cycle of Lent that they were entirely taken over by the journey. The spiritual clarification of that Lent was beyond anything I could have imagined. I was humbled.

But, if we think about it more deeply, we realize that the year’s liturgical seasons reflect the natural course of life. They work on us, if we open ourselves to it, with an almost subterranean power to reshape our lives. That’s why I’d love it if people accepted Ordinary Sacred as a pocket meditation book for Lent. I would be pleased to accompany them in this season.

REMEMBER: You can order Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life from Amazon now. And, please come back later this week, for our complete interview with Kenty Nerburn in which the author and artist talks about his life, his work and the inspirations behind Ordinary Sacred.


Of course, ReadTheSpirit is recommending our own new book, the 2nd Edition of Our Lent: Things We Carry, which now is available for all e-reading devices—as well as in a brightly colored new paperback edition as well. Click this link or click the book cover, at right, to read more about this inspiring guide to this ancient season of reflection.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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