Skip to main content

For Everything a Season

Once upon a time, an ancient story tells, the main tributary of a mountain stream became polluted. Everyone in the village became crazed, with the exception of those few people who refused to drink the water. Ridiculed for their differences, sick to death from loneliness, and facing dried-up wells, those who refused to drink from the stream went to the king to ask what they should do. And the wise old king said, “It is clearly madness to drink this water, but if drink it we must, let us at least have the honor of sending out messengers to tell the rest of the world that we know that we are mad.”
Clearly, evil has seeped into the soul of the nation, but calls itself good, calls itself “freedom,” calls itself “defense.” And that may be the greatest madness of all. If we could only know the enormity of our spiritual distortion, perhaps we could be cured of it. “I never wonder to see people wicked,” Jonathan Swift wrote, “but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” We need, indeed, to expunge the leviathan within us that has robbed us of our shame. We need to become human again. We need to see that what has led us to our profits and pretended to be moral power has really led us to our peril.
We have the moral disease of domination, with which we must struggle for our souls. Power has become our national obsession, as it has for many nations before us and around us. We have bartered moral suasion for brute force.
But why is it like this? Why? Answers suggest themselves but come only with a blush. Is it because we have come to some state of spiritual bankruptcy? Is it because, even as churches, we have given more energy to our institutions, perhaps, than we have to the gospel? Is it because we have spent more time saying our prayers to get into heaven than we have listening to the prophets who warn us that the reign of God must start first on earth? Yes, of course. For all these reasons. But not only.
The fact is that we cling to the image of the Warrior God in the face of the God of Love. The fact is that we mix the national religion and the Christian religion as a matter of course. This country, we presume, is especially favored by God, under God’s singular protection, distinctly chosen to do God’s will. To those types, Lincoln taught in the course of the Civil War, “The question is not whether or not God is on our side. The question is whether or not we are on God’s side.”
We abhor violence but we do not, as a people or a church, study nonviolence. We abhor conflict but we do not demand national research into alternative forms of conflict resolution. We are stricken with a fear of sharing that closes our borders and deports the defenseless.

It is time for us to withdraw our support for violence as we once withdrew it from the bartering for women, the institution of slavery, and the practice of chaining the mentally unfit. The spiritual effect is to become a person of peace, too strong to be intimidated even by our own, too involved to be silenced. The function of the peacemaker is not to shirk combat with evil. The function of the peacemaker is to find ways to confront evil without becoming evil.  

               —from For Everything A Season (Orbis Books), by Joan Chittister

Legacy of Leadership

Give us, O God,
leaders whose hearts are large enough
to match the breadth of our own souls
and give us souls strong enough
to follow leaders of vision and wisdom.
In seeking a leader, let us seek
more than development of ourselves—
though development we hope for,
more than security for our own land—
though security we need,
more than satisfaction for our wants—
though many things we desire.
Give us the hearts to choose the leader
who will work with other leaders
to bring safety
to the whole world.
Give us leaders
who lead this nation to virtue
without seeking to impose
our kind of virtue
on the virtue of others.
Give us a government
that provides for the advancement
of this country
without taking resources from others
to achieve it.
Give us insight enough ourselves
to choose as leaders those who can tell
strength from power,
growth from greed,
leadership from dominancy,
and real greatness from the trappings of grandiosity.
We trust you, Great God,
to open our hearts to learn from those
to whom you speak in different tongues
and to respect the life and words
of those to whom you entrusted
the good of other parts of this globe.
We beg you, Great God,
give us the vision as a people
to know where global leadership truly lies
to pursue it diligently,
to require it to protect human rights
for everyone everywhere.
We ask these things, Great God,
with minds open to your word
and hearts that trust in your eternal care.
      —“A Prayer for Leadership” by Joan Chittister

(Prayer card available for a limited time. Order here.) 


The Time Is Now:A Call to Uncommon Courage

Unfortunately, the vision of Jesus the Prophet has become quite domesticated over the centuries. As life got more comfortable from generation to generation, prophecy became reduced to Christian rituals, to public “witness” of our own private spiritual lives. We learned that the good life was about saying our prayers regularly.

As time went by, the spiritual path came to be more and more about us: our salvation, our public identity, our eternal rewards, our very special, very safe institutional ministries. Gone were the grubby and the outcast around us, gone were the forgotten or forsaken. These kind, we figured, should do it for themselves. After all, we had.

Yet the truth is that in every period, the prophetic task was the same: to interpret the present in light of the Word of God so that new worlds could be envisioned and new attitudes developed that would eventually make the world a better place.

The needs of God’s people today are no less pressing, no more acceptable today than they ever were before. Destitute immigrants languish on our borders begging for help. They risk their lives, their families, and even their children to live a decent and dignified life. In the United States, not one state in the union offers a two-bedroom apartment cheaply enough for families who earn a minimum wage to rent it. Which is why, of course, so many young families live in their cars these days waiting to hear a prophet’s cry in their behalf.

It is now our task, as individuals, as intentional groups, wherever we are on the social spectrum, to shine a light on their lives and to insist that others see it, too. It is the task of each of us to be their voice until they can be heard themselves. It is the individual prophet’s task, whatever we do and wherever we are, to point out their absence in society, their needs, the inequities they bear. It is our task to give them hope, to give them possibility, to help the outcasts to fit in.

But prophets are never mainstream. They hold a completely different vision of life than do most. In fact, they hold the rest of the vision of holiness, the part that seldom is taught in the same breath as charity or morality or good citizenship. They are the other half of Christianity, the forgotten half of the spirituality of the Christian world. They see what’s missing in the world around them and set out to see that the world supplies it for those who need it most. They value other ends in life than the ones toward which most of the world strains—for too much wealth, too much power, and too much distance from the dailiness of the daily.

The prophet in this day—facing a world where rugged individualism reigns and those who can’t make it on their own are easily forgotten—now must do more than simply serve. They must lead this world beyond its present divisions of race and gender, of national identity and economic class. Yes, the prophet is always out of step with the average response to pain or want or loss or oppression. They are always disturbingly different, always stirring up the consciousness of those left behind, always confronting a world that obstructs them, always on a path toward the Kingdom rather than the palace.

         —from The Time Is Now: a Call to Unequal Courage (Penguin Random House)by Joan Chittister

The Monastery of the Heart

In a Monastery of the Heart, the Benedictine soul learns always to return to the cave of the heart, where the superfluities of life do not distract from the significance of life. This requires the cultivation of a reflective soul and a disciplined mind that goes regularly into “retreat”—into that space where we look, first of all, at what we set out to be, and then look consciously at what we are now doing to get there.
Retreat time is the practice of making personal time for the kind of spiritual time that is beyond the routine of religious practices or spiritual duties.
Part of our spiritual journey, Benedict implies, must, if the soul is to make progress in the spiritual life, be spent remembering what we say are our intentions in life, in the light of what we can clearly see are becoming the patterns and actions of our lives.
In fact, what we’re called to do is to pray more thoughtfully, to read more intensely, to feel more keenly the distance between what we say we are and what we know ourselves to be and to strengthen our capacity for resolve.
Retreat times remind us that it is easy to become slack in concern for the mundane, the daily, and the unglamorous in the face of a world so enticingly exciting.

Life in a Monastery of the Heart is meant to freshen the embers and stoke the fire of fidelity, to deepen our understanding of the great treasure we seek, to remind us of who we are and what we are meant to be, to bring to new life in us again the sight of the road on which we have put our feet. Retreat time sets the standard for a rhythm of life that moves seamlessly between contemplation and action, between work and Sabbath, between a regular retreat and reflection days throughout the year.
There is a temptation in religious life to play religious, to dress the part of the seeker, to look, as the Gospels warn us, wan and worn out from fasting.
What is more growthful, the Rule demonstrates, is to ask ourselves regularly about all the little ways we are tempted to cut the corners of the spiritual life: by ceasing to pray, by giving up on the study of the faith, by failing to grapple with the scriptures, by neglecting to go out of ourselves, to meet the needs of others, to tell the world a Gospel truth, to give voice to the pain of the world, to put down the ambitions of the political, to take up the challenges of the prophets.
Retreat times remind us always to make the space to begin—again—and in the midst of the cloying demands of work and family, of money-making worries and the stressors of social systems, to fix the eye of the heart on the really important things of life.

In every Monastery of the Heart, there must be regular times set aside to go down into these inner recesses of the soul once more, alone and centered, to take another look, a new kind of look, at ourselves.
Retreat, reflection, Sabbath, and soul-space are of the essence of the monastic spirit—not for our sake alone, but for the sake of those who depend on us to make the promise of creation new again.

     —from The Monastery of the Heart: Benedictine Spirituality for Contemporary Seekers, by Joan Chittister


Wisdom Distilled From the Daily

One day, a traveler begged the Teacher for a word of wisdom that would guide the rest of the journey.

The Teacher nodded affably and, though it was the day of silence, took a sheet of paper and wrote on it a single word, “Awareness.”

“Awareness?” the traveler said, perplexed. “That’s far too brief. Couldn’t you expand on that a bit?”

So the Teacher took the paper back and wrote, “Awareness, awareness, awareness.”

“But what do these words mean?” the traveler insisted.

Finally the Teacher reached for the paper and wrote, clearly and firmly, “Awareness, awareness, awareness means… Awareness!”

Awareness of the sacred in life is what holds our world together and the lack of awareness and sacred care is what is tearing it apart. We’re a people who lack awareness. We’re a world that has lost a sense of balance. We’re a people for whom wholeness is a frayed and sorry notion. It’s so hard to think that the herbicides I use in my garden contribute to the poisoning of the planet. Or that the emission from our car is one emission too many for our neighborhood. Or that things, things, things are crowding out our senses and our souls.

In the face of all of that, Benedictine spirituality does not ask the monastic to be a pauper or a stranger in the land. Monastics, the Rule declares, are to be given “the proper amount of food” (RB 39), “the proper amount of drink” (RB 40), “the clothing of the region, whatever they need” (RB 55). No, destitution is not of the essence of Benedictine spirituality. Benedictine spirituality asks simply for harmony, awareness, and balance. Benedictine spirituality asks us to spend our time well and to be careful that our wants are not confused with our needs and to treat the world and everything in it as sacred. Benedictine spirituality asks us to recognize our connectedness. Benedictine spirituality calls us to be mindful.

Benedictine spirituality asks us to be mindful about things. Monastics must learn to use what they are and what they have for the good of the human race. Each of us has been given something to keep well: a garden, a room, an apartment, our bodies. That much, surely, we could take care of mindfully.

Monastic mindfulness recognizes that small actions are global in their scope and meaning. People who would not litter in a church will litter on the highway because they see no connection between the two. A monastic mentality, on the other hand, considers the two actions the same.

To live a life of Benedictine awareness means we must come to see what we cannot. To the monastic mind, everything speaks of God. What I have and what I do not have. What I want and what I do not want. What I care for and what I do not care for. But the message is not easily extracted. It takes reflection and prayer and the wisdom of others. Life takes working through.         

              —from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily (Harper Collins), by Joan Chittister

Subscribe to