Joan Chittister: The Second Call

Joan Chittister, OSB
Joan Chittister and the Erie Benedictine’s have put out a new book called Following the Path for all of us who are trying to navigate the second half of life as faithfully as we navigated the first half. Chittister’s newest, along with Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, are two excellent guides for this season of life.

Chittister writes:

“The only man I know who behaves sensibly,” George Bernard Shaw wrote, “is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”

Sometime in the early middle of life, we wake up one morning to discover that our measurements have changed. What we have been doing for years, we begin to realize, simply does not fit us anymore. We have outgrown the young life that we thought would go on forever and have found within us a whole new person. Worse, we find ourselves lodged in a life we no longer find stimulating or satisfying or exciting. We are unfamiliar—even to ourselves. We find that we are living some kind of creeping death, sloughing off what fit us in the past, in the old life we thought we loved, and unable to find a new way to fit into our present.

The feelings that come with the realization are overwhelming. One part guilt, one part fear, they make us ill in soul. We know what we cannot admit. If we do not stay as we are, we will feel forever unfaithful. If we force ourselves to stay as we are, we will go to dust inside.

There is so much at stake now. So much life behind us has been invested in what we now find to be lifeless. And yet there is so much life left to live. How can we possibly live it like this? And where did we go wrong? What happened to our commitment to the life decision we made in an earlier life? And what is at the root of this shift of centeredness: a lack of the kind of personal responsibility that sees a thing through? Immaturity? A lack of focus? What?

And the usual answer is “none of the above.”

Assuming that tomorrow will be the same as today is poor preparation for living. It equips us only for disappointment or, more likely, for shock. To live well, to be mentally healthy, we must learn to realize that life is a work in process.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy by Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister: Silence and Art in the Work of Brother Thomas Bezanson

Brother Thomas Bezanson was a Benedictine monk and ceramics artist who died in 2007. He accepted the rules of monastic solitude, and followed the advice of St. Benedict who said: “If there be craftsmen in the Monastery, [then] let them practice their crafts with all humility.” Brother Thomas spent the final years of his life at Mount St. Benedict Priory in Erie, PA, with the community of Sr. Joan Chittister. Below Sr. Joan reflects on art and the contemplative life in light of Brother Thomas’ work:

If, indeed, truth is beauty and beauty truth, then the monastic and the artist are one. Monasticism, in fact, cultivates the artistic spirit. Basic to monasticism are the very qualities art demands of the artist: silence, contemplation, discernment of spirits, community and humility.

Basic to art are the very qualities demanded of the monastic: single-mindedness, beauty, immersion, praise and creativity. The merger of one with the other makes for great art; the meaning of one for the other makes for great soul.

It is in silence that the artist hears the call to raise to the heights of human consciousness those qualities no definitions ever capture. Ecstasies, pain, fluid truth, pass us by so quickly or surround us so constantly that the eyes fail to see and the heart ceases to respond.

It is in the awful grip of ineffable form or radiant color that we see into a world that is infinitely beyond our natural grasp, yet only just beyond our artist’s soul. It is contemplation that leads an artist to preserve for us forever, the essence of a thing that takes us far beyond its accidents.

Only by seeing the unseen within can the artist dredge it out of nothingness so that we can touch it, too. It is a capacity for the discernment of spirits that enables an artist to recognize real beauty from plastic pretentions to it, from cheap copies or even cheaper attempts at it.

The artist details for the world to see the one idea, the fresh form, the stunning grandeur of moments which the world has begun to take for granted or has failed even to notice, or worse, has now reduced to the mundane.

It is love for human community that puts the eye of the artist in the service of truth. Knowing the spiritual squalor to which the pursuit of less than beauty can lead us, the artist lives to stretch our senses beyond the tendency to settle for lesser things: sleazy stories instead of great literature; superficial caricatures of bland characters rather than great portraits of great souls; flowerpots instead of pottery.

Finally, it is humility that enables an artist to risk rejection and failure, disdain and derogation to bring to the heart of the world what the world too easily, too randomly, too callously overlooks.

Charles Peguy wrote, “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”–Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

From “The Monastic Spirit and the Pursuit of Everlasting Beauty” by Joan Chittister in The Journey and the Gift: The Ceramic Art of Brother Thomas.