A Reflection on the Writings of Joan Chittister

On October 14, I had the privilege to give a presentation at a symposium at Penn State University called “Ancient Traditions, Contemporary Questions.” This conference honored the life and work of one of my favorite spirituality writers, Joan Chittister.

A Benedictine sister of Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pa., Chittister perhaps has done more to introduce contemporary readers to monastic spirituality than any writer since Thomas Merton. She has written nearly 50 books ranging in theme from contemporary applications of the ancient Rule of St. Benedict to the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers; dealing with contradiction; forging new paths;and growing old gracefully. The common thread in each book is how monastic spirituality remains a living source of wisdom for people still today.

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In conjunction with the symposium, Penn State is also displaying an exhibit called “Inspired and Inspiring: The Passions of Joan Chittister’s Life” through December 15. The exhibit at the Eberly Family Special Collections Room of the Paterno Library includes publications, photographs, speeches and quotations spanning Chittister’s 40-year writing career. Chittister earned a doctorate in speech communication theory at Penn State, and the library there is the recipient of her papers.

The Penn State symposium afforded me the chance to reflect on one of the first Chittister books I ever read—and still one of my favorites—“Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living The Rule of St. Benedict Today.”

There are books we read, enjoy, and promptly forget. There are books we read and remember. And then there are the books that transform our lives.

In my life, some of those books would be the novel, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham about a World War I veteran’s slow discovery of what really matters and Man’s Search for Meaning by holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl,  both of which I read in high school. I would also include all of the novels of Graham Greene, which were part of a course I took in college called “A Writer Looks at Theology.” And then at the mid-point in my career, a book that was recommended to me on a retreat, Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living The Rule of St. Benedict Today.

I admit that I had tried reading The Rule of St. Benedict once before on the recommendation of a friend, and couldn’t figure out what the heck it was about. All this stuff about the times and amounts for eating, and the number and order of Psalms, and unfamiliar words like tierce and sext, not to mention the references to corporal punishment and warnings about too much frivolous laughter.

Needless to say The Rule of St. Benedict, like aged sherry, is an acquired taste. Wisdom Distilled from the Daily not only gave me a taste of The Rule’s timeless wisdom, but a hunger and thirst for it.

To say Joan Chittister captivated me in the first paragraph would hardly be an exaggeration. She begins with the story of young monk who boasts that he has achieved such a high spiritual abilities, he can actually walk on water.  An elder gently reminds the monk that even the inarticulate fish in the sea can do the same. “These abilities have nothing to do with real truth,” the elder says. Then he suggests they not skim across the surface of the water, or even fly in the air like birds, but just sit where they are and have a spiritual discussion.

This wisdom story spoke to me on two important levels. All of my life, I’ve suffered from a dual diagnosis: workaholism and over-achieverism. In my career, I was like a champion sprinter in a constant race to claim my prize. On one level, the story reminded me that my self-worth doesn’t come from great feats of journalistic accomplishment—the equivalent for me as a writer of walking on water. And furthermore, that the real material for spiritual growth is right in front of us, what we encounter in the course of ordinary life. That is why the monk says, sit here with me and we’ll speak of spiritual things. Or, as a wise Benedictine sister once remarked to me, “There is no need to go elsewhere, because everywhere is here.”

Being a recovering workaholic, one of the images that stayed with me from this book, is that of the monastic bells, which Sister Joan introduces in Chapter 2. “Benedictine bell towers,” she says, “are designed to call the attention of the world to the fragility of the axis on which it turns … ‘Listen,’ the Rule says. ‘Listen,’ the bell says.”

At the point in my life that I was first reading this, I had not yet heard the sound of a monastic bell. Sister Joan went on to talk about how at the ringing of the bell, all work at the monastery stops. Everyone pauses for prayer. It becomes also a time to reflect on the work we are doing. Prayer, she says, “is not an interruption of our busy lives. Nor is it a higher act … It is the filter through which … we see our world aright and anew.”

This idea of pausing in the midst of a busy work day truly startled me. Journalists are the quintessential multi-taskers. We’re not used to pausing. In fact, I often find myself typing away on the computer and talking on the phone.  Occasionally, I even talk on two phones at once. It’s a learned art, believe me.

When I worked as a foreign correspondent in the London bureau of The Wall Street Journal, we had an office on the 10th floor of a building on the famous Fleet Street. I was fortunate enough to have a desk by a window that looked out over St. Paul’s Cathedral. I’d arrive for work in the morning and promptly turn on the computer, read the wire services and start making phone calls to flesh out my news story for the day. Inevitably, I would look out the window at some point and it would be dark outside. The day had passed it, and I’d missed it. I was like the narrator in a wonderful little poem by A.R. Ammons, interestingly enough called “Eyesight,” in which he says:

It was May before my
attention came
to spring and

my word I said
to the southern slopes
I've

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see

 

Pausing in the midst of our busy work removes us from the confining box of our solely personal world. It reawakens us to the life going on around us. These days, I try to pause periodically in the midst of my work. I love the story of the African tribesmen who stop from time to time when leading a safari. They sit quite still and listen for the beating of the heart. They say they are letting their souls catch up with the rest of the journey. Sooner or later, we all have to let our souls catch up with the rest of our lives. Since those days in London, I’ve learned that we can pause and still be productive. As Sister Joan points out, “Listen,” the Rule says. “Listen,” the bell says.

Sister Joan’s chapter on leisure and balance follows close on the heels of this discussion of pausing and listening. As Americans, we don’t do leisure very well. That’s why there are so many leisure industry businesses dedicated to destination weddings, learning vacations and travel tours. But for Benedictines, leisure is not only essential, it is also holy. In a chapter she titles “The Key to a Good Life,” Sister Joan calls holy leisure “the foundation of contemplation.” And what is contemplation? She gives us a wonderful definition. At its core, contemplation is “the pursuit of meaning.”

Here again is where I felt Sister Joan speaking directly to me, since for too long in my life, I defined my self-worth almost exclusively in relation to my personal and professional achievements. But success at work, she reminds us, is not the same as success at life. While it is good for us to have purpose in our work—indeed that it is essential -- it is equally important that our lives have meaning. Having one without the other is like having the tree without the fruit, or a bird without flight.

Wisdom Distilled from the Daily was published in 1990. Still today, a full quarter century later, writers continue to remind us of these same truths. And people are still responding. Why? Because there is still great hunger for lives of meaning. New York Times columnist David Brooks has written a wonderful new book called The Road to Character. In it, Brooks distinguishes between what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Resume virtues are the skills we bring to the marketplace. Eulogy virtues are the qualities people will recall about us after we die: Were we kind, honest, courageous, faithful? Were we capable of deep love?

Eulogy virtues mirror the values to which St. Benedict pointed his followers centuries ago: listening, community, hospitality, humility, balance, mindfulness, gratitude. Like Brooks, Benedict believed that happy people are made, not born. That happiness emerges from recognizing that there is no division between the holy and the mundane.  Or as Wendell Berry puts it in a wonderful poem, “How to Be a Poet,” there are no unsacred places, only sacred and desecrated places. Sister Joan recognized that long ago.

I’ll end with a few words on her chapter on humility, what Sister Joan calls “The Lost Virtue.”  Just about every self-help book published in the past 100 years tells us the last thing we need, especially as women, is more humility. Most of those books stress assertiveness, self-realization, personal growth. But as Sister Joan points out, Benedict places this chapter in the middle of The Rule, right at its core. She likens this chapter to the monastery’s courtyard garden, which sits in the center of the grounds. Its exotic flowers are a source of beauty and wonder in spring and summer, and its quiet barrenness offers a space for calm and meditation in autumn and winter. As Sister Joan notes, it’s important to remember that humility is not the same as humiliation. It comes from the Latin root humus, which simply means “of the earth.” We are all ‘of the earth.’ We are all heir to the same flights of courage, and descents into petty foibles.

I read the chapter on humility in perhaps a slightly inverse way. My issue hasn’t generally been a lack of humility, but rather a tendency to denigrate the things I do well. When someone compliments me, my first inclination is to say, “Oh, it was nothing,” as if the fact that I did it means it mustn’t have been very hard or special to do in the first place.

As Sister Joan points out, that’s as much an ego problem as taking credit for what we didn’t do well, or didn’t do on our own. It’s a false humility. Wisdom Distilled from the Daily helped me see that humility comes from being grounded in the self. In knowing who we are, what we do well, and what we don’t do well. And when we receive a compliment for something we rightly can be proud of, the appropriate response is, “Thank you, that’s very kind of you to tell me that.”

Wisdom Distilled from the Daily reminds me of a scene in one of my favorite films, The Year of Living Dangerously. I love films where journalists are the heroes and heroines. In this one, Mel Gibson plays an Australian journalist named Guy Hamilton assigned to Indonesia during a turbulent time in its history, the early 1960s. Gibson’s character teams up with a reflective, almost mystic, young photographer named Billy Kwan, played brilliantly by Linda Hunt.  One night Billy takes Guy on a tour of Jakarta’s slums.  As an outsider, Guy is astounded by the abject poverty he sees. Billy says Tolstoi had the same reaction one night walking through the ghettos of Moscow. So much so that he went home, took all the money in his house and returned to give it to the poor.

Guy says to Billy, “But that would just be a drop in the ocean.”

Billy says, “That’s what Tolstoi concluded too. Do you want to know what I think? I think you address the misery you see right in front of you. And by doing so, add your light to the sum of light.”

Wisdom Distilled from the Daily is a book that challenges us in so many ways to add our light to the sum of light.

At the end of the chapter on Holy Leisure, Sister Joan writes:

“The monastery candles tell me day after day: time is going by. The light is waning, there are some kinds of uselessness that are essential. Then I have to make a choice. What is time for? Is it only for work? Then what will be left of me when work is gone? If there is no light in me, what will happen when darkness comes, as it darkness will, to every life? What is the gain of leading a useful life, if I don’t lead a meaningful one?”

What is a meaningful life for me? What is a meaningful life for you? Questions work asking, worth distilling every day we are alive.

Judith ValenteAmerica’s Chicago correspondent, is a regular contributor to NPR and “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.” Twitter:@JudithValente.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Murray
2 years ago
Wonderful article, Ms. Valente! Thank you for these thoughts. As a former monk, I fondly recall Joan Chittister being read aloud in the refectory (monastic dining room) during meals. She is much loved in monastic circles, and in wider Christendom. (However, Dave Brooks is a neocon zionist, and I'm not sure why you bring him into this good discussion.) Also, Chapter 7 of the Rule contains hidden mystical treasure. Here, St. Benedict presents the 12-step Ladder of Humility. This is an exact image of a Mystical Ladder that is hidden within the Book of Psalms, although Benedict gives us no direct mention of the Mystical Ladder hidden in the Psalms. What he does give us is an abundance of clues. There are many such clues and hints in Chapter 7. Above, you noted the initially opaque comments about the Psalms that are in the Rule. The majority of these comments come in the 12 chapters that follow Chapter 7, that is, Chapters 8 - 19. Benedict, ever the patient teacher, is giving us hints that his students can learn from, and have learned from, for 1500 years.

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