Joan Chittister: Bend To Become the Miracle

Art by Dina Cormick
Art by Dina Cormick

“The fact is that the only purpose of the spiritual life, the Desert Monastics tell us to this day, is to begin to see the world as God sees the world. It is about becoming the self that sees life through the eyes of Jesus and then, like Jesus, bends to become the miracle the world awaits.”– Joan Chittister (In God’s Holy Light)

Feast of Joan of Arc: ‘You Know That They Burned Her Horse Before Her …’

Meridian Hill Park, D.C., 2009
Meridian Hill Park, D.C., 2009
It’s the feast day of Saint Joan of Arc. In the park near my house is a statue of her dedicated on her 510th birthday in 1922. “The statue of our French heroine will be built to the glory of womanhood, dedicated by the women of France in New York, to the women of America, and offered to the city of Washington,” wrote Madame Polifeme. It is the only equestrian statue in the District that has a woman rider.

I had the honor of reflecting on this statue with the wonderful poet Linda McCarriston and hearing her thoughts with regard to her powerful poem, below.

La Coursier de Jeanne D’Arc
by Linda McCarriston

You know that they burned her horse
before her. Though it is not recorded,
you know that they burned her Percheron
first, before her eyes, because you

know that story, so old that story,
the routine story, carried to its
extreme, of the cruelty that can make
of what a woman hears a silence,

that can make of what a woman sees
a lie. She had no son for them to burn,
for them to take from her in the world
not of her making and put to its pyre,

so they layered a greater one in front of
where she was staked to her own–
as you have seen her pictured sometimes,
her eyes raised to the sky. But they were

not raised. This is yet one of their lies.
They were not closed. Though her hands
were bound behind her, and her feet were
bound deep in what would become fire,

she watched. … Read the rest of this poem.

Joan Chittister, OSB, on her namesake:

The story of Joan of Arc as we have known it is an almost mythical one, a fantasy of divine proportions. She was a simple French girl from the unsophisticated countryside who took it upon herself to save the country when its leaders could not. She was impelled by the voices of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Margaret, and the Archangel Michael, she said, to follow the will of God. She was to liberate a city, lead an army, save a king, and free a nation from foreign control. The story seems remote, the model suspect, and the voices from heaven not a common way of expressing contemporary spiritual insights or calls from God.

In the end, Joan is captured by her English enemies and burned at the stake with the help of churchmen who consider her a heretic, label her a witch, and condemn her to death because of her refusal to denounce her voices as the church has commanded her to do.

The relation of all that to sanctity in the twenty-first century seems at best obscure until little by little the local history is peeled away and the light is focused on the very human and very universal situation that underlies it. Joan is not to be revered because she was a soldier in the service of the king. Joan is to be revered because she is a model of conscience development, a monument to the feminine relationship to God, and a breaker of the stereotypes that block the will of God for people.

Suddenly, Joan of Arc appears in the plain light of our own lives. She is a woman with a conscience. She is a woman with a mission. She is a woman who has been chosen by God for a man’s job. She is a woman who is bold enough to claim that she has access to God and that God has outrageous plans for her. She is a woman who dares to confront the authorities of the time with a greater question than they are able to handle. She is a woman who threatens the status quo. She tells an inspired truth and leads a life consecrated to her God.

Joan of Arc is not simply the patron of France in times such as ours. Joan of Arc is patron of all those who hear the voice of God calling them beyond present impossibilities to the fullness of conscience everywhere.”–-excerpted from “Joan of Arc: A Voice of Conscience,” A Passion for Life, Devotional Edition by Joan Chittister (Orbis)

Joan Chittister: Women and Their Stories

St. Scholastica by Andrea Mantegna (1431 – 1506)
St. Scholastica by Andrea Mantegna (1431 – 1506)

“February 10 is the feast day of Saint Scholastica, the twin sister of Saint Benedict. She’s the patron saint of women’s Benedictine contemplative communities.

Saint Benedict had a sister named Scholastica who also dedicated her life to the pursuit of God. She, too, founded monasteries and became an abbatial figure. The only story we have of Scholastica is told when Benedict was already an abbot of renown. The incident demonstrates clearly that the brother and sister were emotionally close and a spiritual influence on each other till the time of her death.

During one of their annual visits, Scholastica, inspired by the depth of their conversation, asked Benedict to remain overnight in the place where they were meeting in order to continue their talk and reflection on spiritual things. Benedict wouldn’t even think of it. It was getting dark; it was time to get back to the monastery; it was time to get on with the regular routine of the spiritual life. Unable to persuade him with words, Scholastica put her head down on the table in deep prayer. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a great storm brought with it flash floods and Benedict realized that he could not possibly return to the monastery that night. And the Dialogues say, “he complained bitterly.” He said, “God forgive you, sister! What have you done?” Scholastica answered simply, “I asked you for a favor and your refused. I asked my God and I got it.”

The story is a vein worth mining for a lifetime.
• It tells us that law is never greater than love
• It tells us to be intent on pursuing the values of the life, not simply its rules
• It tells us that discipline is necessary in the spiritual life but that religious discipline is not enough, that depth is a process and that depth costs
• It tells us that God lurks in strange places. And waits for us. And puts in our paths just what we need in order to become what we are meant to be
• It reminds us that a woman has as much power in the eyes of God as any man and that we must recognize women, too, as spiritual guides.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

From The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict by Joan Chittister (Liturgical Press)

Joan Chittister: ‘We Have A Spiritual Obligation to Accept Reality’


“Surrender is what cleans off the barnacles that have been clinging to the soul. It is the final act of human openness. Without it I am doomed to live inside a stagnant world called the self. The problem is that the self is a product of my own making. I myself shape the self. I construct it one experience, one attitude, one effort at a time till the person I become — rich in reality or starved for it — is finished. I shape me, great or small, wizened or insulated, out of the tiny little measures of newness that I allow to penetrate the depths of my darkness one dollop at a time. What I do not let into my world can never stretch my world, can never give it new color, can never fill it with a new kind of air, can never touch the parts of me that I never knew were there. What I once imagined must forever be, what I relived in memory for years, is no more. Openness saves me from the boundaries of the self and surrender to the moment is the essence of openness.

Surrender does not simply mean that I quit grieving what I do not have. It means that I surrender to new meanings and new circumstances, that I begin to think differently and to live somewhere that is totally elsewhere. I surrender to meanings I never cared to hear — or heard, maybe, but was not willing to understand. Try as I might to read more into someone’s words than they ever really meant, I must surrender to the final truths: She did not love me. They did not want me. What I want is not possible.

And, hardest to bear of all, all arguments to the contrary are useless. I surrender to the fact that what I lived for without thought of leaving, I have now lost. Try as I might to turn back the clock, to relive a period of my life with old friends, in long-gone places, out of common memories, through old understandings and theologies of the past, I come to admit that such attempts are the myth of a mind in search of safer days. The way we were is over. They are in fact, laughable to many, resented by some, essentially different in intimation to each of us.

Surrender is the crossover point of life. It distinguishes who I was from who I have become. Life as I had fantasized is over. What is left is the spiritual obligation to accept reality so that the spiritual life can really happen to me.–Joan Chittister, OSB

An excerpt from Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope by Joan Chittister (Eerdmans)

Joan Chittister: ‘A Call Is A Sacred Reason to be Alive’

Joan Chittister, OSB
Joan Chittister, OSB

“Life is pure flame,” Thomas Browne wrote, “and we live by an invisible sun within us.” It is this invisible sun, this light within, this call to something worthwhile in life that is meant to dispel life’s darkness. It gives us our reason to be. And it is this call to the fullness of ourselves that drives us on, that becomes our internal measure of worth and, in the end, it is, as well, the judge of our quality of happiness.

Life is not about having a job. Life is about responding to the great human call to make life more than a series of aimless occupations. A call is a sacred reason to be alive.

The spiritual value of discovering the star by which we are steering the entire rest of our lives shapes us both internally and publicly. It affects the way we feel about ourselves, it determines how we relate to others, it defines our place in the world, and it provides a sense of purpose to life. When those things are defined, the emptiness goes, the rootlessness goes, the capriciousness of life that eats away at the heart of us disappears. Days may be difficult after that, yes, but they at least have a sense of meaning. We are no longer simply spinning around in the space called our lives, fearful of the future, dissatisfied with the present. We are now going someplace for a reason larger than ourselves and feeling more humanly significant than simply self-important.–Joan Chittister, OSB

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

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 on Passion and Purpose

Gerrie Govert's The Stone Cutter, Indiana

“What’s your passion? In the end, it is passion and purpose—passion and purpose—that are of the essence of a vocation, a call to do something that makes me a conscious co-creator of the world.

An old medieval story makes the point best. A traveler came across three stonecutters. “What are you doing?” the traveler asked the first man. “I am making a living,” the man said. “And what are you doing?” the traveler asked the second man. And that man answered, “I am practicing to become the best stonecutter in Europe.” Then the man asked the third laborer. And the third man answered, “I am building a cathedral.”

In my commitment to my vocation, whatever it may be—helping cripples to walk and people to die dignified deaths and children to learn and the world to grow seeds and nations to live in peace—I myself become a holy person, a mystic whose God is alive and present and waiting for us to do what must be done to make creation itself a holy place.

A call demands endurance and persistence, commitment and stability. To be a real call it must be something worth giving my time, my resources, myself to doing. It has nothing to do with success as measured in the number of people served or the numbers of units produced or the number of events attended. It has everything to do with trying. As the Sufi say, “If you are expecting to find an answer to your problem, you have simply not asked a big enough question.” It is out of awareness of our role on earth that we find our place on earth.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Following The Path by Joan Chittister

Teresa of Avila: ‘Prayer is Dynamic’

Sculpture of Teresa in Avila, Spain (photo by Jim Forest)

October 15 is the feastday of Teresa of Avila, mystic, philosopher, author, reformer, and saint.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI awarded Teresa and Catherine of Siena the distinction Doctors of the Church, making them the first women to be so named.

“Prayer is not just spending time with God … If it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us–unmasks us.”Teresa of Avila

Benedictine Joan Chittister offers a wonderful reflection on prayer for this feastday:

To wait for God does not mean that there is nothing else for me to do in the spiritual life than pray. Prayer is not a cocoon. We do not simply go into prayer and hope to come out on the other end of the exercise fully grown in the Spirit, perfectly new, totally finished. All dross removed. All rust scoured. The soul burnished. The heart refurbished. The soul bright and radiant. The mind clear and certain.

Not at all. There is too much of us in us to ever disappear. Nor is it meant to. No, the function of prayer is not to obliviate the self. It is to become to the utmost what we are meant to be no matter what situation we are in. Prayer is the process that leads us to become what Jesus models for us to be.

To pray does not mean that we will cease to be ourselves. It simply means that we will come to know clearly what it will take to become more of the Jesus figure we are all meant to be.

We watch Jesus confront the leaders of the day. He calls the priests and Pharisees to cleanse the temple and lift from the backs of the people the laws of the synagogue that burden them. He calls the leaders of the state to stop living off the backs of the poor. And he calls us to do the same.

Being immersed in prayer, really immersed in prayer, sears our souls. It forces us to see how far from our own ideals we stand. It challenges the images of goodness and piety and integrity we project. It confronts us with what it really means to live a good life. It requires courage of us rather than simply piety.

It is in following Jesus down from the mountaintop, along the roads of the world, through the public parts of the city, into the ghettoes of the poor and the halls of government and the chanceries of the churches, saying with John the Baptist, “Repent and sin no more” that prayer gets its hallmark of undisputed credibility.–Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpted from The Breath of the Soul by Joan Chittister

Elie Wiesel: ‘To Forget The Dead ….’

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”–Elie Wiesel, Night

War is a depredation of the human spirit that is sold as the loftiest of livelihoods. To hide the rape and pillage, the degradation and disaster, the training of human beings to become animals in ways we would allow no animals to be, we have concocted a language of mystification.

We could casualties now in terms of “collateral damage,” the number of millions of civilians we are prepared to lose in nuclear war and still call ourselves winners. We call the deadliest weapons in the history of humankind, the most benign of names: Little Boy, Bambi, Peacemakers. The nuclear submarine used to launch Cruise missiles that can target and destroy 250 first-class cities at one time, for instance, we name “Corpus Christi,” Body of Christ, a blasphemy used to describe the weapon that will break the Body of Christ beyond repair.

We take smooth-faced young men out of their mother’s kitchens to teach them how to march blindly into death, how to destroy what they do not know, how to hate what they have not seen. We make victims of the victors themselves. We call the psychological maiming, the physical squandering, the spiritual distortion of the nation’s most vulnerable defenders “defense.” We turn their parents and sweethearts and children into the aged, the widowed, and the orphaned before their time. “We make a wasteland and call it peace,” the Roman poet Seneca wrote with miserable insight.–Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpted from There is a Season

Joan Chittister: Is This All There Is?

“Nothing disquiets the soul more than a feeling of being unfinished, adrift, rudderless at the same time. There is something more we’re meant to do in life, we’re sure, but no way, apparently, to dispel the aura of aimlessness in which we have begun to live. I go to work every morning but no amount of money could really make me like it, feel good about being there, able to convince myself that being there is where I’m meant to be.

There is a cosmic sense of frustration about knowing myself to be on the way to somewhere—but in the dark. I do my best at everything I do, however mundane, however humble. I know that cooking hamburgers in a short-order place is a decent thing to do in life. But I can’t believe that is all I’m meant to do in life. There must be more. There simply must be more I’m supposed to be doing than making hamburgers for people who can pay for them.

I avoid class reunions because everybody else there talks big plans about big things, but nothing big has ever happened to me. Nor have I begun yet to realize that there is a distinction between going to work and pursuing my call. So I go through life disappointed with the job but unable to realize that the call, for me, may be far and wide away from any paid occupation anywhere.

I have yet to understand that my call may start after work ends every day. My call may be to organize games for street children, or write to prisoners, or make casseroles for the old woman next door, or learn another language in order to help refugees adapt to the small white town in which I live.

The point is clear: my sense of worth and purpose in life is tied up with the quality of life I provide for others, for the planet, for the human race. Solving equations all day long, or encoding a computer all day long can also be boring, can also seem worthless, unless I’m doing these things in order to be some small part in curing an insidious disease or finding a formula that reduces the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

It may be something as simple as producing materials that ennoble the human mind rather than pander to it, selling and creating things that enhance life rather than destroy it. And, yes, making hamburgers for those who can pay for them can also be a call, provided that working in this place is what enables me to care consciously for someone else in some other way.

In the end, it is passion and purpose—passion and purpose—that are of the essence of a vocation, a call to do something that makes me a conscious co-creator of the world.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

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