Chittister: ‘Call on God, but Row Away From the Rocks’


Joan Chittister is a Benedictine sister, author, excellent lecturer, and leading champion for women around the world. I like the way Chittister and her community ground themselves in daily prayer and take a very realistic view of the world – a view that is shot through with a sense of humor.

Here’s an excerpt from her book The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer:

“Call on God but row away from the rocks.”–Indian Proverb

Healthy prayer and neurotic prayer are two different things. Neurotic prayer denies reality. Healthy prayer grows both spiritually and psychologically as a result of it.

When we fail to accept the fact that some things just are: that rain rains and sickness comes and the unexpected is commonplace—when we fail to realize that life is life, all of it meant to teach us something, to give new opportunities to be better, stronger people—we miss both the meaning of life and the real role of prayer in it.

The spiritually mature person does not rely on God for miracles. They rely on God for strength and courage, for insight and hope, for vision and endurance. They know that God is with them; they do not believe that God is an instrument for the comfort of human beings.

They do know that one of the purposes of prayer is to give them the courage it takes to do what we are each meant to do in the world that is ours. They do not forgive themselves the responsibility for changing their own little piece of the world on the grounds that if they pray hard enough God will change the world for them. They know that, without doubt, it is their responsibility to change the world.

The mystic Catherine of Siena, whose relationship with God was legendary, changed her part of the world by chiding popes and feeding the poor.

The mystic Ignatius of Loyola, whose life of prayer is exactly what took him and his men to the streets of Europe, changed the world by defending the faith and re-catechizing a generation gone dry.

The contemplative Thomas Merton, whose life in a cloistered religious community made prayer the context of his very life, changed the world by speaking out from the cloister to lead an anti-war movement intent on stopping the illegal war in Vietnam.

The laywoman Dorothy Day, whose life of prayer followed a tumultuous life, changed the world by modeling the care of the poor on the streets of New York City.

None of the great spiritual personalities of the Church have ever made prayer a substitute for justice and mercy, for peace and equality, for honesty and courage.

They “rowed the world away from the rocks,” made the miracles the world needed—and so must we.–Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

An excerpt from The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications)