Joan Chittister: ‘A Lust for Joy’

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“Sitting out in the middle of the channel in a little nineteen-foot fishing boat with ocean freighters and large sailboats passing us on both sides, I remember the wild and crazy joy of it: no desk, no phone, no speeches, no airplanes. Just four of us, a hot sun, an empty fish bucket, a parade of boats, and the rocking of the waves. I cast with all my might, caught the top of the channel light, and, laughing my heart out, cut free just in time to avoid wrapping the next sail in fishing line. Life, bare and simple, is a wonderful thing. How do we learn that? And what does it mean for the spiritual life itself?

We learn it by seeing it, I think. When I was a young sister, in the days before the church had negotiated a kind of truce with the world and the monastery reflected the emotional sterility that the standoff implied, Sister Marie Claire, steadfastly opposed to the suppression of joy in the name of holiness, went to her music room every Sunday afternoon to listen to records of symphonies, scores of operas, collections of piano performances. We didn’t go to concerts in those days, and only music teachers were allowed to have record players. She would sit in her rocking chair all afternoon and simply listen. I remember being very moved by the model of such bold and wanton delight in the face of such institutionalized negation of it. The lesson served me well. There are times in life when the only proper response to the dreary and the difficult is to ignore them. The person of hope, the person who knows that God is in the daily, knows joy.

Embodied love, with all the joy and pleasure and beauty it brings, has been made the great enemy of the spiritual life, as if learning to be dour were a dimension of sanctity. We were trained to beware the beautiful and the pleasurable, as if beauty and pleasure distracted us from the God who made the world beautiful and gave us all a capacity for pleasure. “There is no such thing as a sad saint,” the poster says. Having come out of a Jansenist spirituality, it took me a little while to get beyond the sourness of sin to the delight of fishing boats and party times and wedding feasts at Cana. But I finally came to understand that there is no such thing as “loving God alone.” If we love God, we love everything God made because all of them are reflections of the Love that made them.

To lust for joy is to lust for the God of life. To make joy where at first it seems there is none is to become co-creator with the God of life. When we make joy, we make a holier, happier life.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpted from Called To Question by Joan Chittister

Abbot Philip: ‘The Most Beautiful Trees in our Canyon’

“In the early monastic writings, we find the monks extolling perseverance. Sometimes early writers defined a monk as one who falls every day, but who gets up and keeps on trying. One of the wonderful stories, for me, is of an old monk who encouraged a young monk by telling him that he, the old monk, continued to struggle with his sinfulness even in advanced age.

Years ago an artist pointed out to me that the most beautiful trees in our canyon are not those that are perfectly straight and without blemish, but those that have lived through storms and winds and have lost limbs and been twisted—but still keep growing toward the light.

None of this means to extol failure or sin, but simply to acknowledge that failure and sin are part of our daily human experience.  What forms us as spiritual persons is the struggle against failure and sin.  We should not become complacent as we age.  We do come, I hope, to accept ourselves as women and men who will continue to struggle with failure and sin until we die.  Over the years, hearing the confessions of older, mature men and women has brought incredible consolation to me.

There are times in life when we are aware very much of our brokenness, our failures and our sins.  We need such awareness so that we are truthful before our Lord.  We must not confuse this spiritual aware with depression or natural sadness.  If we are depressed or sad, we need help.  If we are sinners, we need God. Learning to turn to God is at the heart of the spiritual life.  Learning to keep on trying to be faithful is a form of that turning to God, over and over.

At a practical level, this never implies that a Christian or a monk will always manifest complete joy.  That might be an ideal.  Most of us still struggle and find ourselves at times not able to be completely joyful. Often, however, I see older people who become more and more joyful as they accept themselves and continue in the struggle.”–Abbot Philip, OSB

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