Joan Chittister: ‘Hospitality Is A Lifeline’

Lake Erie by Hank Plumley

“To live the monastic life in a monastery on the edges of a windswept Lake Erie makes something very clear: hospitality is not a matter of gentility or niceness. Here, as it was in biblical desert lands, hospitality is often a factor in physical survival. Too often, if it weren’t for the spirit of hospitality in this area, people would freeze to death in stranded cars or in city parks or in unheated homes.

It is an important lesson for people who live a monastic spirituality. It teaches us that hospitality is a lifeline that is part of the fiber of life. People need physical hospitality, spiritual hospitality, and psychological hospitality always. That’s why hospitality is a basic theme in The Rule of Benedict. That’s why there’s always someone in charge of answering the door at the monastery. Monastic hospitality dictates that there must always be someone there to care for anyone and everyone in need. The cold of February reminds us to open our hearts always. Someone is waiting to get in.

A Danish proverb reads: “If there is room in the heart, there is room in the house.” Who is there in life that you seem able to bear in unlimited quantities? Who is there that you have little room for at all? Try to remember that coldness of heart is always a call to personal growth.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

From A Monastery Almanac by Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister: Psalms, Psyche, Healing

Joan Chittister, OSB

“I kept my sin secret and my frame
wasted away. Day and night your
hand was heavy upon me.”
– Psalm 32

This psalm is a piece of very good psychology about the burdens we carry within us, our unforgiven sins.

When we don’t face our faults, our problems, our weakness, our angers, our sense of inadequacy — worse, when we blame them on others, or deny them, or need to be perfect, or become defensive — we refuse to accept ourselves. Every doctor and psychologist in the country sees the effect of that in their offices every day.

We all have things we need to forgive in ourselves or face in ourselves. We have things we know we ought to ask forgiveness for from someone else, but pride and stubbornness hold us back.

These things become a barrier between us and the community, a hot stone in the pit of the stomach, a block to real happiness. And nothing is going to get better until we face them.

Forgiveness occurs when we don’t need to hold a grudge anymore: when we are strong enough to be independent of whatever, whoever it was that so ruthlessly uncovered the need in us. Forgiveness is not the problem; it’s living till it comes that taxes all the strength we have.

Some people think that forgiveness is incomplete until things are just as they were before. But the truth is that after great hurt, things are never what they were before: they can only be better or nothing at all. Both of which are acceptable states of life.

“Life is an adventure in forgiveness,” Norman Cousins said. You will, in other words, have lots of opportunity to practice. Don’t wait too long to start or life will have gone by before you ever lived it.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Songs of the Heart: Reflections on the Psalms by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications)

Joan Chittister: A Story on Beauty

by Rima
There was a special prison In Uruguay for political prisoners. Here they were not allowed to talk without permission or whistle, smile, sing, walk fast, or greet other prisoners; nor could they make or receive drawings of pregnant women, couples, butterflies, stars or birds. One Sunday afternoon, Didako Perez, a school teacher who was tortured and jailed “for having ideological ideas,” is visited by his five-year-old daughter Milay. She brings him a drawing of birds. The guards destroy it at the entrance of the jail.

On the following Sunday, Milay brings him a drawing of trees. Trees are not forbidden, and the drawing gets through.

Her father praises her work and asks about the colored circles scattered in the treetops, many small circles half-hidden among the branches: “Are they oranges? What fruit is it?”

The child puts her finger to her mouth, “Shh.” And she whispers in her father’s ear, “Don’t you see they are eyes? They’re the eyes of the birds that I’ve smuggled in for you.”Eduardo Galeano

Beauty, we’re told, is a basic human instinct, the kind of thing that separates us from the animals, a kind of intrinsic quality of the human soul, the irrepressible expression of contemplative insight. It has something to do with what it means to be alive. But is this true? And how do we know that?

I remember being shocked into a new sense of what it means to be human in an inhuman environment in the worst slum in Haiti. Here people live in one room hovels made of corrugated steel over mud floors. They bear and raise one child after another here. They eat the leftovers of society. They scrounge for wood to cook with. They sleep in filth and live in rags and barely smile and cannot read. But in the middle of such human degradation they paint bright colors and brilliant scenes of a laughing, loving, wholesome community. They carve faces. They paint strident colors on bowls made out of coconuts. They play singing drums across the bare mountains that raise the cry of the human heart. They manufacture beauty in defiance of what it means to live an ugly, forgotten life on the fringe of the United States, the wealthiest nation the world has ever known. They are a sign that a society that can make such beauty is capable of endless human potential, however much struggle it takes to come to fullness. They are a sign of possibility and aspiration and humanity that no amount of huts or guns or poverty or starvation can ever squelch. –Sr. Joan Chittister

From 40 Stories to Stir the Soul by Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

Joan Chittister: ‘Mercy Is What God Does for Us’

Sr. Joan Chittister and the folks at Benetvision have just released a new book on forgiveness. As we seem to live in a culture that promotes “mercilessness,” rather than a “quality of mercy [that] is not strained” (as Shakespeare put it), this book is a good one to use with small groups and for summer meditation. (Also listen to the podcast with Sr. Joan below.)

Mercy is what God does for us. Mercy discounts the economic sense of love and faith and care for a person and lives out of a divine sense of love instead. Mercy gives a human being who does not “deserve” love, love. And why? Because, the Scriptures answer, God knows of what we are made.

The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return some day. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will “reach out a hand and lift us up.”

Mercy is the trait of those who realize their own weakness enough to be kind to those who are struggling with theirs. It is, as well, the measure of the God-life in us.

Beware those who show no mercy. They are dangerous people because they have either not faced themselves or are lying to themselves about what they find there. “We are all sinners,” we say, and then smile the words away. But the essayist Montaigne was clear about it: “There is no one so good,” he wrote, “who, were they to submit all their thoughts and actions to the laws, would not deserve hanging ten times in life.”

It is our very weaknesses that enable us to understand the power, the necessity of mercy.

The Sufi mystic Mishkat al-Masabaih reminds us, when we are overwhelmed by our own inadequacies, our own diversions from the straight paths of life, that the mercy of God is always greater than the sin of being too humanly human. He writes: She who approaches near to Me one span, I will approach near to her one cubit; and she who approaches near to Me one cubit, I will approach near to her one fathom; and whoever approaches Me walking, I will come to her running; and she who meets Me with sins equivalent to the whole world, I will greet her with forgiveness equal to it.”

The mercy we show to others is what assures us that we do not need to worry about being perfect ourselves. All we really need to do is to make the effort to be the best we can be, knowing we will often fail. Then, the mercy of others, the mercy of God is certain for us, as well. “The only thing we can offer to God of value,” St. Catherine of Siena said, “is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.” –Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpt from God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Joan Chittister

Listen to a podcast with Sr. Joan on forgiveness and the conversation about the controversy about the Cordoba Center at Ground Zero in New York.

Joan Chittister: Ten Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Babettes Feast fruit pic
Scene from film "Babette's Feast"

Whether you will be wrapped in the loving chaos of family on Thanksgiving or eating turkey burgers with friends at a local dive or serving bird with all the fixings at church or the local soup kitchen, I pour out the blessing of gratitude on all your heads. Here are thoughts from Benedictine sister and writer Joan Chittister for you to carry with you:

1. It’s important to dot our lives with unscheduled as well as scheduled feast days. That way we remember that we are able to make joy as well as to expect it. Or as Lin Yutang, the Chinese philosopher put it: “Our lives are not in the lap of the gods, but in the lap of our cooks.”

2. Food and feasting are the things that remind us of the unending glory, the limitless love, of God. Voltaire said of it: “Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.”

3. A Jewish proverb teaches us that “Worries go down better with soup.” Treating food as a sacrament rather than a necessity reminds us that, in the end, there is always more good in life than bad. The trick is to notice it.

4. To love good food is a measure of our love of life. Food preparation teaches us to do everything we can to make life palatable, spicy, comforting, full of love.

5. Sitting down to a meal with the family—table set, food hot, salad fresh, water cold, dishes matched and food served rather than speared—may be the very foundation of family life in which we celebrate our need for one another. The loss of the family feast may do more to loosen the family bonds than any other single dimension of family life.

6. One purpose of feasting is to get back in touch with the earth that sustains us, to glorify the God that made it and to pledge ourselves to save the land that grows our food.

7. In this country, we are conditioned to think that taking time to eat together, to make a meal an event rather than an act, takes time from the important things of life. That may be exactly why we are confused now about what the important things of life really are. “Happiness,” Astrid Alauda writes, “is a bowl of cherries and a book of poetry under a shade tree.”

8. Good food is the hallmark of every season: fresh fruit in summer, roasted chestnuts in the fall, warm bread in winter, oyster stew in the spring. Leslie Newman says of it. “As the days grow short, some faces grow long. But not mine. Every autumn, when the wind turns cold and darkness comes early, I am suddenly happy. It’s time to start making soup again.” Good food is the sacrament of life everlasting.

9. Food doesn’t have to be exotic to be wonderful. Peasant societies give us some of the best meals ever made. It is always simple, always the same—and always different due to the subtle changes of sauce and cooking style that accompany it. As the Polish say: “Fish, to taste right, must swim three times—in water, in butter and in wine.”

10. To be feasted is to be loved outrageously.

Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB