Sr. Joan Chittister "The Monastic Heart for Challenging Times" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen or someone whose own writing is an important valued resource to spiritual seekers. We invite you to share the daily meditations in these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen and remind each listener that they are beloved by God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Today on this podcast, I have the pleasure of talking with Sister Joan Chittister. Joan is an internationally-recognized writer and lecturer and the Executive Director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie, Pennsylvania. Joan is a Benedictine sister of Erie. She served as the President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses. And Joan was the Prioress of the Benedictine sisters of Erie for 12 years. Joan Chittister has authored 60 books and received numerous awards for her work on behalf of peace, justice, and women in the church and society. Today, I want to talk with Joan about her latest book, The Monastic Heart. Welcome Joan to this episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Sr. Joan Chittister: Well, I look forward to it. Karen. I have such respect for Henri of course, but I also have a great respect for the Henri Nouwen Society. You’re doing a phenomenal job of maintaining that work at a time when the world needs it most. I just want to thank you. I know it’s not an easy thing to do.
Karen: Oh, how kind of you, that means a great deal. I want to say that this book feels wonderfully doable. The subtitle is ’50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life’. I love the way you tie contemplative with fulfilling; who doesn’t want a fulfilling life. We’re living through this awful pandemic, this endless pandemic. I mean, why do we need a monastic heart and how will this help us through these troubled times?
Joan: Well, in the first place I want to avert to your recognition that fulfilling and contemplative are, in my vocabulary at least, synonyms. Contemplative scares people off. They think you mean that you are to curl up in a corner in a fetal position and lose all contact with reality and the rest of life. On the contrary, the contemplative person adds layers of life to their own experience by being willing to look at what’s going on at one level of life and what we know about that intuitively or otherwise ourselves. And about what’s missing in life as we see it here. So, yes I entitled the book with a certain degree of hesitancy. And yet I felt it was worthwhile to say that to live like this is fulfilling.
It will give you more than it will take away. On the contrary it helps you create another attitude toward the things you see within you, as well as outside of you. So my idea of developing a monastic heart is then not – I do not mean that this will enable you to withdraw from life. I argue that it means that you’ll be able to take the twists and turns of life with more equanimity if you have given yourself to thinking things through and to understanding that there is a spiritual dimension of us that needs to be fulfilled. And I’m not talking about a denominational development, I’m talking about honoring the rest of yourself, the feeling, spiritual part of yourself. So I think if you go to the last chapter of the book I think I’m very clear about what the monastic heart brings to the world.
So for instance, I say monasticism is driven by the spirit of tradition. When the pandemic came and I watched one church door after another closing, one university door after another closed, one local civic committee not meeting anymore, one neighborhood where we hadn’t seen the neighbors come out of the front door of the house for months, I said to myself this is a global calamity, but more than that, it is a test of the frailty of society. The only thing we were able to do was endure; endure the separation, endure the fear, endure the death, endure the loss of a job, endure the lack of neighborhood parties, endure, we had to endure. And so I said to myself how are we going to do that, Joan? What will enable people to sustain themselves? Where can we go to find a way out in a period of such depth, such darkness and such distance? And I decided that maybe the best way to do it was to kind of scrape away all the cultural elements of a pandemic and look for an eternal wisdom. What has been with us for years that has sustained us through every generation to this time, every century, to this time? Now, Karen, I’m a Benedictine and the Benedictine Order is the oldest Order in the Catholic Church. There is nothing older than the church itself. So Benedictinism is itself over 1500 years old. And it rests on one tiny little book, about five inches tall and four and a half inches wide called the Rule of Benedict with 72 very short single page or half page ideas. And I said to myself, when something has lasted for 1500 years in this culture, surely somebody ought to say, how did they do that?
How can anything last for 1500 years? We’re people who know that the local bank will go down in 12 years, we know that Penny’s and Sears and Riteaid would always be on our corner except they aren’t anymore, or they’re closed now, or they just have taken everything and put it online. So if we live in a revolving door society, where can we find any stable wisdom? And for me, that was in monasticism. So I looked at this monasticism that is being driven by the spirit of tradition that preserved and relished the ancient history of life. It gave us actually a kind of a sense of changelessness. We know what we believed in. We know how this has operated. We know that we have been operating it in the United States of America for almost 200 years. It’s driven by the spirit of tradition. It is going to be here tomorrow. It was here yesterday. It’s going to be here in a hundred years from now, as it was a hundred years ago. It doesn’t live in the past. I’m not saying that, but it makes the past and wisdom that has been tried for 1500 years and is still here, both our present and our future, it gives us a basis.
Karen: I really enjoyed how history was woven through this book. It was so helpful to me. It was so informative to me. You dare to say it’s the spirit of monasticism that’s been the rudder of the Western world. Coming to the book I couldn’t help but wonder, well, am I going to need to join a group? Am I going to need to be a part of monastery in order to live this today? Tell me how you take this out from the walls of the monastery, into the world.
Joan: This is about fulfillment. It’s not about membership. It’s not about asking people to do something. Remember we were in a pandemic completely distanced from one another. I’m not talking about getting people together in anybody’s new monastery. I’m talking about that second dimension of the monastic heart, which is the monastic heart is driven by the spirit of reflection. And we were, we were all locked in our houses and we still are to a certain extent. We haven’t gone back to what it looked like two years and two months ago. We now have learned that thinking, reflecting is an important part of life. We get up every day and ask what the numbers are. We get up every day and ask who’s in better shape than they were yesterday. Who’s in worse shape? And what can we do about it? And we ask now questions about why and what, and how shall we go on living in a world that is highly technological, almost totally urban.
This is not the flu epidemic where two-thirds of the country lived in an agricultural setting and didn’t get sick at all because nobody was out there. We now live in a world where two-thirds of the world lives in cities. And so we are constantly interacting with one another’s life and one another’s illnesses. So this spirit of reflection calls us to think how we can do all of this best. That’s where contemplation has come in. Having created us, God wants us to do at this particular moment what needs to be done here and now, and well. So, if you have tradition and you have a spirit of reflection, which means you are thinking things through both spiritually, psychologically, and socially, you are not falling apart because you can’t handle this, or think we’re under attack from aliens. We know that this is a natural part of a natural world, and we have to naturally adjust ourselves differently to live with it now. That gives us then another element of the monastic heart which is the spirit of personal growth and development. Monasticism is not about debasing people to become children under control. Monasticism is what grows people up. It welcomes development. Our monasteries are only as strong as our strongest people. We educate everybody for instance. We take every single gift of every single sister and we release it. We don’t leash it in the name of holiness. We release it in society so that it can bring a new kind of presence there. So when you have tradition and when you have reflection and when you commit to personal growth and development, then you open a new part of the monastic heart, which is the spirit of service.
We are here for one another. We’re here for creation. We’re here. Remember that yes, God created the world, but God did not complete it. God left the completion of creation to us. And that is the biggest responsibility we have. That is the spirit of service that we have to bring to everything. And it is driven finally, by the spirit of transcendence. This world is not all there is, there is in this world, the energy of a creative God and the responsibilities that come to creation and our part in it. When you look at this situation that we’re in now, and you know that 1500 years have passed in a culture that is driven by the spirit of tradition, by the spirit of reflection, in the service of personal growth and development, in a commitment to the spirit of service for everyone, and finally, then, a spirit of human community. That means we’re all in this together. We must all come to our fullness. We must bring our families and our groups to fullness, and we must live through this latest natural event with as much heart as we possibly can, because we are also driven by the spirit of transcendence. That’s a very full life, Karen, that is not cutting ourselves off from anything or demanding membership or rule keeping, or even personal events or spiritual exercises. We’re talking about the growth of the spirit, the depth of the heart, the opening of community, and the ability to live together in one another’s service. I think that’s a lot of fullness. That’s not asking people to go into small groups, to withdraw from the world, to worry only about themselves, to have no feeling about the relationship and the grace of God moving through this. It doesn’t feel like the grace of God, but it has given us a lot of new ways to look at life.
Karen: Joan, I love what you’re sharing. It’s full. It is the overflow. It is the fact that you have this kind of depth in you has, obviously in a sense, the endorsement for what you’re sharing in this monastic heart book, because there’s the overflow of wisdom. I loved a phrase I came across, which you said in the book. You say one great Benedictine virtue is enoughness. Can you explain that to me? What do you mean by enoughness?
Joan: Oh, yes. It’s a word to use often, Karen. You know we struggle as unselfish people of every denomination with what commercialism, consumerism, power, wealth, always laying one level of, and element of life on top of, the other. And half of the time we feel guilty about it and the other half of the time we say what else is there to do? We’re supposed to do this. And that’s true. So I stopped using all those words because there’s nothing wrong with those words, those aren’t bad words, commerce, commercialism, consumerism, capitalism, those have all served us very, very well in large part. But I began to use the word ‘enoughness’; a sense of enoughness. Everybody has to have what they need, and they have to have it in the quantities that are necessary for their own development, as well as the development of the world around them.
I have no problem with wealth whatsoever. I do not chastise people for being rich. What I care about is not how much money you have, but what you do with it. What are we doing with the rest of it? What are we doing for other people? So I call repeatedly for a sense of enoughness. I have, I always say this, how many houses can we live in at one time? How many boats can we drive? How many airplanes can we own? When we have enough both to manage our personal development, our family’s development then it’s time for us to ask what we are doing for everybody else’s development. And I consider that the key to human community. You know, what can we do to help most in the Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in dear, dear Haiti, that is still living in tents after the very first storm, what in God’s name are they doing now? And who is helping them do it? Enoughness is in my mind, the great Christian virtue. It doesn’t ask us to deny our own children anything. It simply says when we have what we need and what is important to our own development, our country’s development, our city’s development what else can we do? And what else should we be doing? That comes out of our sense of enoughness.
Karen: Another portion of this book, The Monastic Heart, talks about humility. In fact, there’s three chapters there. But in reality, I learned there’s 12 steps in the Benedictine practice of the ladder of humility. Maybe you might tell me a little bit about this. I thought it was so fascinating. I wondered if this is really one of the places where you very much connect with Henri Nouwen because Benedict is called the great psychologist. I think that one of the great virtues was Henri’s longing to understand the human heart and how heart and faith come together; heart, mind, and faith come together. Maybe this might be a place where we can bring Henri into our conversation a bit.
Joan: Oh you’re so right, because Henri frankly was the model of humility as far as I’m concerned. Now, let’s look at what you picked up that so far nobody else has said anything about, and it has always surprised me. It is humility is a 12 step program in the rule of Benedict. But the interesting thing is most spirituality programs, most theological arenas, at least when we were kids, what they were teaching us was if you did so many of this, gave up so many of that, tried so much of this, was so good to those, that eventually what would happen to you, Karen, you’d get God. We started at nothingness out of that mentality. And we developed and developed, and we got, we fasted and we gave great alms and we withdrew from frivolity or trivia. We were warriors of Jesus, warriors of God. And our warrior self was giving up one thing after another, another, another, another, until there was nothing left of us. And that was supposed to be humility. And the distinction between humility and humiliation lost reality. Humility is not humiliation and humiliations do not bring humility. They bring anger, they bring pain, they bring fear, but they do not bring a rich and loving life. Now where’d I get that? Did I make that up? No, no, no, no. In the rule of Benedict this tiny, tiny little spiritual document that has lasted for 1500 years has a chapter on humility that has 12 degrees. The first degree, first four degrees are all about your relationship to God. But here’s the thing, here’s the thing Karen: Benedict says here’s what you have to be aware of:
The first degree of humility is that you recognize the presence of God and that you live in awe of it. Think of the weight of those words, Karen. He’s saying, don’t give me this stuff that you’re going to buy God with so many rosaries and so many fast days and so many alms-giving. You can’t buy God. You can’t merit God. Merit theology is false. Nobody can worm their way into God by adding one more number to anything. And why does he say you can’t merit God? Because he says, you already have God. Stop, stop. Realize what I’m saying. You are not unworthy of God. You’re not going to climb a ladder and get to God at the top. You and God are going through life together. Be in awe of that. Understand what is being said. God is creation. Creation is all made out of the same things. All the scientists will tell you that. Now that means that God is in the pores of your soul. You already have God. That’s where those first four degrees of humility come; recognize first that you have God, secondly, accept then the will of God for you. And number three, find good, wise, holy people who will help guide you on your way. And number four, confess to them. Let them know who you are; let them help you begin your own growth. Those are the first four steps of humility. The second four steps from five through eight says also, Karen, get to know yourself. Quit making excuses for your failures. Quit expecting the highest seat at the table, the best chair in the house, the finest car for yourself, just be alive. Be honest about yourself. Make amends. You know, I have given this presentation so many times in so many groups and at the end of the presentation, somebody comes up and says to me, Sister Joan, do you know that sounds – are you familiar with AA? Not really. Not really. No, I’m not, but I can tell you this much, people who are say this is exactly the AA program.
Karen: What comes to mind to me is a line that has held me through my life: “True humility is the freedom to be known for who you really are.” You push us in to say, okay, don’t run away from that. Look at who you really are. There’s freedom in it. There’s real freedom when you stop putting on the false self. And there again I find myself really linking to Henri Nouwen in his understanding. It was interesting because in the midst of all of that, and what you’ve just described, was that sense of his truly understanding what the self in him was, he could talk about self-hatred, – but really God, that he was God’s beloved was the heart of this. It’s really the heart of you, isn’t it? That God loves us. As you said in those first four, take us on farther. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I love that reality that you call us to know ourselves.
Joan: It’s right on Karen. I’m so grateful that you added that because that was Henri’s continuing search and Henri’s continuing plea and then Benedict adds four more. And that is the way you treat others. Take care of others. Don’t laugh at them, don’t sneer at them, don’t make fun of them. Honor them, reverence them, raise them up. So there are the 12 degrees of humility. And it’s your relationship with God, your relationship with yourself and your relationship with others. I feel it is such an important chapter. It is such an important approach to life that to be quite frank I couldn’t do it in one short chapter. So I did it in three. You’re the only person who has really been aware of that – say, what’s wrong with her? What is she writing here? But you got it, Karen, thank you.
Karen: There’s so many parts of this book that I have loved. And there’s so many things I’m going to go diving into, going to go back and take my time and step through. One of the things that I thought was interesting was you remind us of the importance of a beginner’s mind on this spiritual journey. And I love the fact that you link that every faith looks at this. I thought that was fascinating – the importance of the beginner’s mind.
Joan: Well, you know, that’s a very strong Asian concept as well. What it really says in western language I think is, every single thing, every single day, every single person can teach us something new and we must be looking for it, ready for it and accept it because in our fullness lies our fullness of development and that if you don’t allow yourself to develop, If you can’t take, when you go into the office and some kid comes in and says, you don’t have to do that anymore you know, all you have to do is press those two buttons. And if you are insulted by this, rather than happy to learn something new, then there’s a part of you that will not grow because you’ve capped your own growth. The beginner’s mind says in the morning, it’s all out there.
I always get very amused by the fact that the Benedictine Office, meaning the Benedictine prayer life, starts first thing in the morning with a prayer that we call Lauds, praise. We to start praise. Okay. So I roll out of bed. I get down to chapel. They’re just beginning Lauds and I find myself praising God. Yeah. Well, nothing has happened yet. What am I praising for? I could understand if in the middle of the day, you stop me to pray Lauds, but you’re doing it at 6:00 in the morning. What’s wrong with your head? What’s wrong with my head is what’s in question. Lauds says, whatever is coming is good for you. Don’t miss it, don’t ignore it. Don’t give it up. Whatever is coming today is good for you. That’s the cultivation of the beginner’s mind.
Karen: I love that. I love that. That’s excellent. Oh my goodness. Now let me ask you, I’m going to take you back to Henri because, I mean, you have such a deep, spiritual rich knowledge to share with us, but I’m kind of curious about how did Henri kind of impact you? Has he influenced you over the years? Did you ever get to know him? What were the strengths and weaknesses you found there?
Joan: I did not know Henri personally. We met; we would meet on the speaker circuit. He’d be coming off, I’d be coming in. He’d be there overnight, I would be coming in the next morning. I had nothing but respect and affection for this humble man and his willingness to show the world that our growth is an eternal struggle and an eternal awakening at the same time. Henri opened himself. He did not pretend to be anything more than what he was. And he was perfectly willing to allow people to know who were slipping on their own rope over and over and over again, that slipping on that rope was part of becoming who you are. He was a humble man. I would’ve loved to have known him longer, better, and more deeply that didn’t happen simply because the paths were very much polite and at the same time very different. So I would go into large groups and deal with their questions. Henri went into the smallest of small groups and allowed people there to begin the walk with him. It’s beautiful, kind of like the book ends of the spiritual life. And so the fact of the matter is, I think, and I am no expert on Henri’s opus of works, but what I do know is that what you are doing is preserving this raw and wonderful faith and trust and self-giving that is of the essence of humility to people at large, who can never thank you enough for doing that because this strain of spirituality and of spiritual honesty cannot be lost. It can’t.
Karen: Oh, Joan, thank you so much for that. I appreciate it. It’s interesting because I think of late, particularly through these past difficult 18 – 20 months of dealing with the isolation and the challenges of COVID, we’ve become so aware through those readers who let us know how Henri’s words have been a comfort and a source of hope and a source of encouragement to them. And, I have chosen as we do podcasts, to reach out to people who can be that kind of a resource. And honestly, today, just listening to you, what a rich resource you are. I want to encourage people. First of all, I’m going to encourage them to get The Monastic Heart. I have a lot of Joan Chittister books on my shelf, by the way. And I just want to say, Joan is a person that if you get a chance, hear her, go hear her. If you get a chance to read her, be sure and read these books, they will deepen your walk. They will clarify and sweep away some of the stuff that’s silly and really get down to the essence of what is important. You’re a gift to us.
Joan: We’re the generation of a church that needed to outgrow a lot of things to grow up. We have a foot in two worlds, Vatican I and Vatican II, and those two worlds were like a teeter-totter. One day you felt very Vatican I – you wanted everything set and all the answers and all of the corruptions fixed. And then you grew a little bit and you became Vatican II who said, wait a minute we’re not here to hide in a corner. We’re here to be a shining light carrying the light of Jesus in our own hands down the city streets so that other people can have faith, have certainty, have trust and know that they’re part of a community on the way to God when you put the two ends of this thing together, which Henri does for us. He was one of those people who was struggling with Vatican I at one level and gifting the world with his reading of Vatican II, and yet at the same time, very honestly saying to people, buddy, it’s not easy. Keep going, keep going. Your fullness is, don’t give up.
And all I can say is the spiritual life is a life. It is not made up of either false asceticism’s or false holiness. It is this awareness that God is with me, is in the center of me, is companioning me through my life and will give me every grace I need to get there. God is not a magic act. God is not a vending machine. God is not a warrior. God is the presence and creation of all life and mine too and is in the center of me saying, “Come on, come on, you’re doing really well. Don’t worry, I’m right here. We’re going to get through this, everything is fine.”
Karen: Oh, Joan, thank you so much. I am so glad I got to talk with you today. Honestly, this has been rich and it’s been life giving, and I know it will be for all our listeners.
Joan: I want to thank you, Karen. I understand that these open-ended interviews are a risk and I admire you deeply for being willing to take other people into the conversation. That’s really where the reflection that I’m talking about and the presence of the Spirit come in. God bless you, Karen. And may you continue your work for years to come.
Karen: Oh, thank you so much, Joan. Thank you. I am deeply encouraged by your response to what we’re doing. It means a great deal to us. Thank you for today. Blessings on you my dear friend. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Sister Joan Chittister. I truly enjoyed her latest book, The Monastic Heart, and I’m looking forward to returning to it as a guide to deepen my own spiritual journey.
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