Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Sister Joan Chittister. Sister Joan is one of the most influential religious and social leaders of our time. Quite honestly, it’s been several years now that I’ve been wanting her to be a guest on Insights at the Edge and I’m so happy that it’s happening right now.
For more than 50 years, she has passionately advocated on behalf of peace, human rights, women’s issues, and church renewal. She is a much sought-after speaker, counselor, and clear voice that bridges across all religions. She’s also a bestselling author of more than 50 books, hundreds of articles, and an online column for the National Catholic Reporter. Sister Joan is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie Pennsylvania. She’s also executive director of Benetvision and the founder and animator of Monasteries of the Heart, a web-based movement sharing Benedictine spirituality with contemporary seekers.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Sister Joan and I spoke about the relationship between faith and doubt. We also talked about the importance of asking the right questions, and what are the right questions. We talked about seeing the world as God sees the world, and what this asks of us. We also talked about growing older gracefully, the signs of spiritual maturity, and how Sister Joan feels at 81 years of age about what she calls “the last great adventure,” dying. Here’s my conversation with someone I truly admire, Sister Joan Chittister:
Sister Joan, it is my great honor and delight to be able to have this chance to have a conversation with you. Thank you so much for making the time for us.
Sister Joan Chittister: Tami, you too. We’ve waited a long time for this one. I just know it’s going to be just exactly as human as we want it to be.
TS: Now, right here at the beginning, as I was getting excited about this chance to speak with you, I said to a friend of mine yesterday, “Tomorrow I’m going to get to speak to a real woman of faith,” and how rare that is in my experience, unfortunately rare. I wanted to start right on that question of being a person of faith, and if you identify with that label, and if so, what it might mean to you?
JC: Oh, I do identify. I couldn’t qualify that. It’s been the center and the image and the true north of my whole life, literally, my whole life ever since I was a youngster. For instance, I knew at a very early age, at a very, very early age that I wanted to be a sister. I knew after I entered [the sisterhood] that the immersion in the gospel was a call to me. It wasn’t so much a study or an imitation, it was a call. I saw something going on that was different than the world in which I lived, and yet, I knew that this whole notion of the Jesus story was my call to a pattern of life. Everything that I do, everything that I do is through that filter. Yes, you must say, it comes out of faith. It doesn’t come out of anything else.
TS: Tell me, faith in what? What does faith actually mean to you?
JC: Well, what it means to me is the notion of the fulfillment of life; that somehow or other, my life doesn’t compartmentalize. There’s not a public me and a private me, or professional me and then not-professional me. All of my life is directed to that call out of that perspective. When I meet a person, I know instantly that this person is gift. I know it’s because the scripture tells me that everybody is gift—the Canaanite woman is gift, the Roman soldier is gift, the child is gift. Somehow or other that Jesus story has colors, filters [over] everything in life, the way I judge it and the way I feel I must respond to it.
TS: Now, one of the things, Sister Joan, that I love about your writing is the embrace of paradox. You wrote a book on embracing contradictions. One of the things you write about is that our doubts can be part of our faith. I wanted to talk about that; one nickname someone once had for me was “doubting Thomas.” You’re always doubting, doubting. What do you see is the role of doubt in our faith?
JC: Well, I’ll tell you. There was a sister in our community some years ago; she’s died since. She’s probably one of the wisest people that I ever knew and also one of the funniest at the same time. When she talked and said anything serious, I listened in a special way. She said to me one day, “You do realize, of course, that the deeper you go into the spiritual life, the more careful you have to be.” I said, “What does that mean?” She said, “Well, for instance, you have to watch what you pray for.” I said, “I don’t get it. I don’t get what you’re saying.”
She said, “Well, look, if you’re going to pray for faith, hope and love all your life, and you’re going to pray for faith, you have to understand then that you will struggle with doubt. If you’re going to pray for hope, you realize of course that that means that you will know despairs. If you’re going to pray for love, you have to realize that somehow or other you will come to see the parts of life that are not loving and must be loved.”
So this notion that doubt is a stepping stone to a deeper faith—it’s so easy when we were kids; you know what they gave us was the catechism. Baltimore Catechism 3: Who made you? God made me. Why did God made you? God made you to know him and love him and serve him in this world and in the next. Well, those were easy answers. They were the answers—I don’t say that they weren’t right, but they were not of the essence of the impact of—they lack the meaning. Only when you move from one level of the spiritual life to another, when you’re letting go and letting go and letting go of all the certainties you’ve had because now nothing is certain, do you realize that only the call to doubt and only the journey through doubt brings you to a rock solid faith.
In the end, as paradoxical is life is, you have learned over and over and over again because of what you doubt in the present that in the end, as we work our way through it, it is a rich field and it promises both personal gifts and personal perspective in a way that we couldn’t get them under any other conditions. Doubt is the leader of the spiritual life.
TS: I’m curious to know in your own experience, Sister Joan, in a wrestling with doubt that you’ve had and how you made your way through it, what that was actually like for you? If you could give us an example.
JC: Yes. I can remember … well, let’s put it this way. I contracted polio at the age of 16. The diagnosis was the worst you could get. “This young woman will never walk. She has to learn to accept that.” The doctors—I was so intent on doing everything that I had to do to get life right again. Nobody, no professional in the field at that time—it looked as if the paralysis was simply total and would be permanent. I can remember coming to a very dark place even though I was only 16 at that time. Somehow or other people saying to me, “Well, pray for a miracle.” I was finding it very difficult. That just seemed audacious to me to pray for a miracle. There was something I wasn’t doing, something that had to be considered in my life.
Well, it took four long years before we began to realize that there was any life left, if not in the nerves that were damaged then the nerves that were compensating. I began to realize that this whole notion of going through the process that life had handed me was a more important part of not just my physical health but my emotional health as well; that being able to deal with the darkness and the doubt of the goodness of life and the doubt that somehow or other I was not being blessed, that God was not answering everybody’s prayers. Only by coming through that little by little by little that I really come to know the God who says in scripture, “I wish you well, not woe.”
Every single thing I had to go through to get well was wellness for me. I learned an awful lot. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about other people. I learned that you could make changes in life and not die. I learned that what you planned wasn’t necessarily the best thing for you and that somehow or other, the grace was in everything—not just in what I would call good or others would call great, or even what you would call health. I became healthy in so many ways that weren’t physical. The older I got and looked back on that period, the more I realize how important that dark doubting period was to the development of the rest of me and a faith that lies in the notion that in the end, all will be well and not woe.
TS: Sister Joan, as I said in the beginning, I feel so lucky to have this chance to talk to you. I want to ask you the questions that are the most burning questions in my heart. I want to make the best use of our time together. One of the things I feel about you and from all of your writing is a kind of—these are my words—a fiery purity. What I’m curious about is if you feel there’s been a cost, you’ve had to pay a certain price, for this fiery purity. If so, what is that cost?
JC: Did you say a fire and purity?
TS: A fiery, fiery purity.
JC: Yes, fiery, right. That’s it. That the word. Yes, you pay a price because what happens when you get to the center of anything? For instance, something very public, we were going through the Vietnam War. I was a young woman in grad school. The country was highly polarized about was the war worthwhile, and how proud we should be or how shaken we should be. I came to the conclusion that I really could not be part of that political struggle whatsoever, that the fact of the matter was that not only was war wrong given the fact that in this day and age, we have no such thing as a noncombatant now. We’re wiping out women and children at great rate; we were taking homes, not military installations or oil fields. We’re just covering the earth with sand and explosives. It’s a pathetic thing.
I had to realize that I would begin to speak about peace, meaning not just some hypocritical kindness but that I had to keep pointing out that war solves nothing, that war is destructive, that nobody wins a war, nobody, not even the people who think they come out of it on top. To begin to speak peace in a country that puts more money into destruction than we do human development, it brought a lot of criticism, a lot, a lot of public feedback. Somehow or other, I could not avoid it. I just was not capable of mollifying or pretending that I understood just for everybody else’s sake. No matter who disagreed about what, I had to stand where I was.
Now, that wasn’t easy. It’s not easy for me. I love people. I love parties. I love ideas. I love excitement. To find myself on the wrong side of an American question took a lot out of me, put a lot into me, and did indeed purify a lot of the issues. I stopped talking as the years went by. I stopped counting cruise missiles and atomic throw-weight and just realized that I didn’t care if we were using sticks and stones; the fact of the matter is, that this was a worthless, useless and sinful way to go about our political system.
TS: Now, this brings me to another question. When I consider how much you’ve spoken out in your life, and I would say that you’re someone who seems to stand in your truth and live on purpose. What I notice is I get inspired by that in a certain kind of boldness, if you will, be bold. Yet, I know as part of the Benedictine creed, there’s a high value on humility, on humbleness, and I know in my own life this challenge between balancing what I perceive as a desire to be humble behind the scenes but yet also a call to be bold. I wonder if you can speak to that.
JC: Well, you mean to humility itself? Yes. It’s a topic that I love. It’s not an American topic. We have been taught over the years—this whole notion of rugged individualism for instance, the pioneer spirit, everything about it is wonderful. I don’t have any problem with any of that. But in our attempt teach our children to be self-reliant, to stand up, to be courageous, to be leaders, to do their best, to make us much money as they can, to get as much power as they can, to be as independent and in control of their own lives as they can, we’ve deprived them of this whole notion of the growth of the human community that comes from the merger of individual gifts into common gifts.
We’ve also confused humility and humiliations. I always use the example of teachers who would hang big red tongues around little kids’ necks because they talked in school in those days. That didn’t teach that child anything near humility. What is humility? Humility is knowing who I am. It is knowing that what I am is all I am and that the gifts I have are very limited and without merger with the gifts of everybody else, the gifts I have will be largely useless anyway. There is a bridge between humility and community. It’s what I know myself to be and the way I respect what everybody else is.
I don’t have to suck up all the light in a room. I don’t have to have all the gifts to be a great leader. I have always said, my community and the staff with which I work make me look a lot better than I am. It’s the community gifts coming together and doing something for the common good outside themselves that’s the real power. That power comes from the humility to allow other people to have gifts greater than yours, or yours maybe equal to theirs but yours have no right to consume theirs. It’s this notion that enabling the human community as a community leads us then to greatness of country.
If you want to be a great country, then you have to see that everybody on every level can, a) live as a dignified human being because humility is truth and the truth is, that everybody has a right to dignity and to a sense of self and to a sense of initiative and to a sense of equality with every other human being alive. Then, the greatness that comes out of that leaves us each of us satisfied with who we are, each of us respectful of who everybody else is, and all of us together amplifying the voice of the individual in such a way that it changes, it transforms, it informs, it stretches the common good. It’s marvelous. It doesn’t take anything away from us; it enables us to throw our gift into the center of humanity and see humanity become a better place because of it.
TS: Joan, I also want to ask you about questions. You called your spiritual memoir Called to Question and I know that asking questions is really important to you. Here’s what you said at a commencement speech, what you said to the graduates: “What the world needs from you is the courage to ask the right questions without apology, without fear, and without end.” My first question is, what are the right questions we need to ask?
JC: I believe there is one right question for every topic and that’s “Why?” “Why do you do that?” “Well, we do it because we’ve always done it.” “Why have we always done it?” “Well, it’s something we inherited, it’s called culture. It’s the way you go about things.” “Why do we go about them in that way?” “Well, because we’ve always done it that way.” “Why do we keep doing it that way?” Do you see where it’s going? It’s slicing an issue right back to the root of it. When we can get to the root of it, then if it needs to be changed, you can change it. Those are the right questions. Where did this behavior come from?
Look, for instance, at slavery a couple of hundred years ago, and racism today. Why? Why do people have problems? Simply because somebody comes from another part of life, another place, another ethnicity, another race? Why? What is that in us? When we move it back there, it isn’t color that’s our problem, it isn’t ethnicity that’s our problem, our problem lies in us. Why is the question that keeps us moving toward the right answers to the right issues.
TS: Now, that’s very profound. I wonder within the Benedictine monastic tradition and all of the rules that you inherited and then operating within the Catholic church, I can imagine that asking why might get you into trouble some of the time. Why this? Why this? I mean, I know in my own religious heritage, when I asked why a lot, I didn’t get answers that satisfied me.
JC: Well, you have to make a distinction about the kind of question you’re asking and the kind of answer you’re getting. For instance, where Catholicism is concerned and a lot of other similar religions who take the same position about women. When you take the why question all the way back, you find out that the answers you’ve been given have been institutional ones. They aren’t spiritual ones, they’re not spiritual ones.
Wait till you hear this. I was invited to a brunch yesterday morning by some wonderful people. We were all talking about the implications of the kind of stories that are in the press at this time about male/female relationships and harassment and sexual inappropriateness and all those things that have now just exploded in the midst of us. We know they’re there but I certainly didn’t realize that they were that rampant and so institutionalized.
So I said to this very good man—I wanted to ask a man directly, somebody that I saw as solid and good and somebody I would respect. I said to him, “Tell me something, what message—now, he is a man I’m sure who’s in his late sixties, early seventies. “What message did you get about women as a young man, as a boy growing up? What did you take with you out of your boyhood and young adulthood that somehow or other helped you see the relationship between male and female?”
He paused for a minute but not very long. He said, “Well, when I was little or young, in grade school, we just took it for granted that girls and boys were different.” Then he said, “As I got older and got into high school, I said to myself, ‘We’re not different. We have the same urges and the same interest and the same ideas.’ I came to the conclusion that women were also human but not quite as human as we were.” Now, that’s a direct quote. That’s the answer I got. That’s a quotation, not an interpretation. “I began to realize that women were human but not quite as human as we were,” the male norm.
Now, where did that come from? A lot of it, a lot of it came from religious teachings. The interpretation of the role of men—because men wrote the scriptures and men wrote about the men of scripture, and where women break in is certainly a sign of the divine inspiration behind scripture because they wouldn’t have been there at all otherwise. When you begin to pick at and deepen a subject, then you begin to understand that you’re really dealing with two things. You’re dealing with the law of God and the laws of the churches. You’re dealing with institutions and with holiness. You’re dealing with the nature of creation and the relationship of God to that creation and you to that God. You have to begin, then, to deal with how those relationships—Jesus, who deals with women everywhere, the scripture is very clear about that fact; it says, “And there were women with Jesus and they were supporting him out of their own substance.” I always say, do you understand what’s being said there? No women, no Jesus. These were the people in scripture who were subsidizing this work, who recognized him first, who followed him first, who were the first foundation of the church and of Jesus communities.
So it is a huge question, but it has two sides. One is institutional; one is the essence of creation and what it means to be human on the way to divinity, or divine on the way to fullness of humanity. These things—we now have a whole other body of information about this subject. It’s called science. Science will not teach you that women are human like men but “not quite” as human, not quite.
Now, you have a whole body of information that requires some rethinking, some spiritual rethinking, about social issues. And it starts from the very beginning and it certainly has a high point at the time of Galileo and Copernicus and we’re still in it, still trying to get this thing called “creation” right. We’re beginning to understand that even animals have rights, and we cannot treat them as disposable items without feelings, without pain for our own sake. It’s all of a piece, Tami. You can’t take it a piece at a time and generalize that little piece.
TS: As part of this questioning process, Joan, you write about contemplation. One of the thing—I pulled this sentence out because I’d love for you to explain it. You write, “Contemplation comes down to seeing the world as God sees the world.” I notice, as you’re talking about science, I can kind of—”Oh, that’s how science sees the world,” and I get that. But when I try to imagine an interior process where I could see the world as God sees the world, I notice I feel a little shaky. I don’t know if I know what you mean by that.
JC: Oh, but that’s the easy part, Tami. When God looks at God’s creation, God said, it’s good. This is good. We have made so much of it bad. We see people on the streets of the world, dying in front of our faces; their babies nothing but ribs and big eyes and heavy heads. If I see the world as God sees the world, God knows that is not what God meant. It’s not what God wants for that child. That’s not what God wants for those people. That is not God’s will. I see the world as “God sees the world” means I see, I know inside me as a full human being what God’s will is for all of us and it’s our responsibility to see that God’s will comes to be.
God did not complete creation. God created and left it to us. Those children are dying because we do nothing about it, because we allow it to happen. God sees that too. That’s where your first question comes in again. It’s how I act because of the faith I have and the will and nature and creation, creative activity of God that requires what I do. Now, that’s important to me, and that is contemplation. To walk the streets of my town and see those streets as God sees those streets. Does God look at this house and say, “That’s good”?
God looks at these hungry children. We feed children. My community feeds children. We have a soup kitchen for kids, a soup kitchen for kids because too many of the children in our city never eat three meals a day. We feed them before they go home. When the reporters came to cover the story of a soup kitchen for kids, they said to the sisters, “Do you mind if we talk to the kids?” “No, no, please do.”
They said to this little girl, “Do you like it here?” “I like it a lot.” “What do you do here?” “Well, we come and we do our homework and then we get to play in the gym and then we come over and we get really good food.” The reporter said, “Well, that’s lovely. Did you learn anything here? Anything here surprise you?” The kid said, “Yes.” He said, “What was it?” She said, “I was surprised. I didn’t know you were supposed to eat three times a day.”
She was eight. She was eight years old, Tami. She didn’t know you were supposed to eat three times a day. What is God’s will? What is contemplation? What does it mean to live your faith, to see the world through the filter of your faith? This is not profound. This isn’t high-level technology. This comes right out of the Ten Commandments, the action of God with God’s people, and the will of God for creation. It’s not difficult.
TS: Now, Sister Joan, I have to say that I actually think this is very profound. In reading your writing about caring for the poorest of the poor and being willing to feel the suffering of people all over the world, what I noticed was resistance—my own resistance to that and the resistance of many people I know. You talked before about our individualism, this rugged American individualism. In an interview with you, you talked about how so many of us now in the United States can’t necessarily count on Social Security for our retirement and we can’t count on the health care system to provide for us.
We’re so invested in our own economic security. I don’t want to be an old person who has to ask other people to take care of me, who suddenly in my elder years looking for a handout. I need to take care of myself. So I don’t take the feeling time to feel into the poorest of the poor and what I might be able to do for them because I’m too concerned about my own economic security.
I think a lot of people find themselves in a situation like that. I wonder if you could speak to that problem in our time which makes what you’re saying, identifying in a feeling way with the poorest of the poor and other people in need, it makes it hard. It’s not intuitively obvious.
JC: Yes. Listen, thank you for that. Thank you for the way you phrased it because I want to attach the answer to my response to it to something you said. You said—and I agree. I agree with you completely. Yes, I’m looking at people. I live in inner-city Erie. I look out the window and I look at the four parts of our city and I know that there are people in the wealthiest parts of our city who are exactly where you are. They have worked hard all their lives. They have a right to what they work for. Sure, they come out of the rugged individualism motif of American history and that’s great. It’s worked for them. All they’re trying to do is take care of themselves and their kids and their mortgages and their houses and their schools and everything that goes with it and to see that they are not a burden on society as their lives go by.
That is all highly commendable as far as I’m concerned. It’s not that kind of individualism that I would think is corrupt. It’s when you got to the cenacle and you said, “You know, I am so busy doing this, trying to assure that I won’t have to be taken care of, that I don’t know what to do for them.”
Now, there are two ways to do for anything and that is in this town, for instance, in the north and in the east as it gets colder and colder. You understand it better than I do in Colorado, I’m sure. A lot of people will begin to collect old coats and gloves and hats and boots, and that’s wonderful stuff. It changes people’s lives. It keeps them alive in the terrible weather we have.
There’s another way to do and frankly, it’s more lasting. This is where you get in to the struggle between charity and justice. Charity maintains people. We have a soup kitchen and we’ll collect the blankets and the coats. There’s no doubt about that. It’s only justice that changes the situation so that we don’t have eight-year-olds who have no idea that you’re supposed to eat three times a day. Somehow or other, changing attitudes is as important as collecting coats, becoming part of the human conversation, pointing out that a minimum wage is not a living wage for too many people.
Too many people in my neighborhood, they are working, Tami. They’re working harder than anybody I know in the other three parts of the city because they’re working two and three part-time jobs because they get no benefits. At the end of the three part-time jobs, they still don’t have a living wage. There’s something wrong with the way we’re putting our mercantile world together, that you can have that much wealth in this country but I can’t see that this child’s mother will have enough food stamps to feed her three times a day. Then, I’ll say at the end of the day, “Well, if they work as hard as I’d have, they could have it too,” when there’s no job to have?
Do we have, then, no other kind of responsibility except to see day after day after day, every single thing that we thought was becoming an American gift to the world is now coming off the budget, coming down, the medical care coming down? If we want to know what to do, get into the conversation. Change the attitudes that think that starving somebody to death is the bright side of individualism. It’s not. It’s not. It says something about who we are if we allow this conversation to go on without us. We are a part of it. We’re not just part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.
As far as I’m concerned, that charity and justice struggle, one does not satisfy for the other. You have to have both and you have to have them in tandem so that the people that I’m looking at out this window right this minute, know there’ll be heat in the house tonight and know that there will be three meals for their children tomorrow and I know that neither is true.
TS: I notice as you’re talking, Sister Joan, in some ways it seems that charity is easier—it’s easier to get my arms around. When you’re talking about being in the conversation for justice, I feel more helpless around that. I feel like I’m having conversation, I’m not sure how effective I am.
JC: Well, again, now we come back to my questions. Who is left out of the legislation that’s being passed? Who will not profit from this? Who will be advantaged? Those two questions have to be asked of every single thing we do as a nation, as a people, as citizens. Who is left out, and who is being advantaged, and why? Why is this group being left out? Why are these people being advantaged but no one else is being advantaged? It all comes together. It’s not profound. It’s a piece.
TS: OK. Another thing I wanted to talk to you about, Sister Joan, is how you’ve written 50 books in your life. In studying up for this conversation, I learned that you have gone on these annual writing retreats for two or three months a year. I’m curious to know what kind of interior state do you put yourself in or do you enter so that you can write these gorgeous, inspiring books?
JC: You’re right. There is an interior state. Thank you for asking this question because sometimes when people ask me these questions and I tell you the truth, when I’m done, I say to myself, “Oh, that certainly looks quite precious.” The fact of the matter is that I don’t know most writers who can write without silence. I love to have writers talk about how they write because every one of them is different and yet there’s a common thread that I trace through all of them, and that is that need for concentrated quiet or total silence. To do what? To go down inside yourself, find your own truth about this question.
I only wrote [Between] the Dark and the Daylight because I began to realize that we sit around and we dream up the best all the time, and every one of them, every best, sours someplace. What is that saying? That there is no such thing as “best”? No. It’s saying we only have one eye to see what we think is best for us. And yet so often, it’s the worst part of our lives that bring in the best out in them. Isn’t that the truth? The house burns down and you think you’ll never recover, and you hear people later saying, “The best thing that ever happened to us is that all the stuff in the basement went. We hadn’t look at it for four years anyway.”
We learned to live a different way. We re-did life. We didn’t do it the way it was before and it was good for us. Or, “I lost my job and I found something just to keep us alive, but it was so different, but I was home for supper every night and I had weekends. All of a sudden, we had a different family life.” Those are the paradoxes of life.
For me, this writing question is a question that I can—I laugh about it. I say I can write on a two-page essay in an elevator ride. That wouldn’t be difficult for me at all. When I sit down to write a book, I have to be alone. I have to be out of my space. I have to be completely in orbit, totally unmoored. I don’t write in our houses. I don’t write in anything permanent. I write where I am free to kind of move around; my soul moves around in orbit around me. If it sounds true, no pun intended, then it’s true and then I can write it. That’s the zone. The zone has to be quiet, has to be honest, and it has to have—the question that I write on, I have to see it as meaningful for human development.
TS: You said your soul moves around in orbit. I love that image. It’s like you’re out in the universe. Is that what it feels like?
JC: That’s it. There you go. The Earth is turning to one direction and I’m right with it but going the opposite way. My soul is loose and free, and then the ideas follow it and it releases the ideas and then I say—that’s what creativity is about, isn’t it? That’s good. That’s good. The soul [inaudible] is a biography of every human being.
TS: Sister Joan, you’ve written a recent book called The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. We’re having this conversation and you’re 81 years old. Is that correct?
JC: That’s exactly correct.
TS: I’m wondering, are you experiencing certain diminishments with age and how is that working for you? How are you making peace with that process?
JC: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve asked myself that question actually, Tami. I suppose there’s something about being a writer that protects you from a bit of that. I mean, you’re used to sitting. You’re no athlete, never were. You don’t lift weights for a living. You don’t get up every morning and go to the office for 10 hours a day or something like that.
Having said that, I’ve had a lot of physical problems all my life from the polio on and even before that. The physical for me is not an obstacle; it’s something to be lived through. But it is a factor. It affects—yes, I don’t walk very well. I walk well but I can’t walk far. I have only a certain number of footsteps in my life ever since the polio. There have been lots of other elements as well, but I work with what I have.
For instance, I get up every morning and go straight to the pool and have been accustomed to swimming a mile a day. Right now, I’ve been out of the pool for too long and I did have another surgery, so I’m only doing about three-quarters of a mile right now; but I’m still doing it. I believe in pressing the physical opportunity to a sensible level, to do what you can do and do it very well. Then, what you can’t do, that’s all right; it doesn’t make any difference. It really doesn’t make any difference. If you have a hearing problem, you read more. If you have a sight problem, go listen to other people more. There’s a gift in every paradox. It will develop you more than you ever imagined. I know that’s a [inaudible] answer but it’s my answer. I’m not greatly limited physically. At 81, they don’t have marathons for us. If they did, I’d be interested.
TS: In my experience, not all elderly people I know would I consider spiritually wise or mature, but of course, some are. I wonder, what do you think the signs are of something like the wisdom of elderhood or spiritual maturity?
JC: That’s a wonderful question. That’s a very basic question. Wisdom is the learnings distilled from experience. That’s all it is. Wisdom is the learnings distilled from experience. I believe in teaching people and telling people all the time no matter what they describe to me, “What did you learn from that, and what happen to you because of that, and how did you see life after that, and how did it change your life?” Those four issues out of every major life experience or trauma: what did you learn from that, what did you begin to see from that, how did it change your life, did it change your life? If so, in what way or why not?
I find that’s of the essence. It’s of the essence to learn to ask those questions. It’s of the essence to help other people ask those questions, and to yourself, recognize that it isn’t so much what happens to you; it is what you learned from it, how you deal with it, what went on in life because you went through death or loss or great conflict or physical problems. Everybody goes through something—doesn’t make any difference. Everybody goes through something. Why? Because we’re not finished. We have a lot to learn every day and we’re not finished until we have learned it.
Spiritual maturity, then, is wisdom made real. By that, I mean spiritual maturity says, “I am growing, and I will grow. I must grow. I should grow. I must remember to keep on growing all the way to the grave, right down to the last moment.” You hear people talk about people they’ve worked with in a final illness, and the beauty that they saw and then the strength that was there, the kindness, the gratitude. You recognize that’s all coming out of this growth of spiritual maturity that says, “Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing is good for me at this moment and I must make the best of it myself.”
Spiritual immaturity is expecting God the puppeteer, God the magician, God the great lawyer, God the child’s fantasy, the spiritually infantile fantasy that we make God or somehow or other, is either punishing me or testing me or checking me out to see if I’m worth anything. That’s nonsense. That’s spiritually immature. God gives us everything we need to be who we must be at every moment and it’s our responsibility to be it. God is with us to strengthen us and companion us and beckon us on; you’re doing fine, I know it was hard for you, but you handled it so well. Now, just keep coming. Don’t hide. Don’t run away from this. Stay with this. Spiritual maturity says, “The God who loves me and created me has given me everything I need to come to the fullness of myself,” and I think the maturity lies in taking responsibility for that growth.
TS: Sister Joan, when you were talking to the graduates and you gave a commencement speech where you said it’s so important to ask the right questions without end, and I noticed this idea of continuing to ask questions even as we enter our elder years—that really struck me because I think sometimes I think, “Tami, you’re supposed to have lots of answers now. You’ve interviewed hundreds of people and been in the spiritual education business for all these decades.” And yet I notice, yes, sometimes I may feel like I have an insight, but I’m still always asking questions. I still have lots of questions. I wonder what you think of that.
JC: Well, I think it’s wonderful. I think that’s what’s keeping you alive. I think it’s what keeps all of us alive. It’s when you stop asking the questions, when there’s no new question for you and nothing that you’ll exert yourself to find out—not necessarily from a book but from people that you’ve seen go through it or from people—there’s a great monastic story about the disciples who say to someone in their midst, “I hear that you are going to see the spiritual elder.” “Yes, I am.” “What rituals does the spiritual elder teach you that are so important to you?” The disciple says, “Well, the elder doesn’t do any rituals at all.”
“Well, then, what prayers does the elder teach you to say so that you have a feeling of grace and goodness?” “The master has never given me a prayer at all.” “Well, then, what potions are you taking from the elder that give you a new spiritual strength?” “The master has never given me any kind of potion at all.” “Well, if you’re not getting prayers and you’re not getting rituals and you’re not getting potions, why do you go so far to sit with this spiritual elder for nothing?” He said, “To watch the spiritual holy one light the fire.”
Wisdom comes from choosing the right people to watch, to grow from. It’s part of that community thing again. Benedictines are very, very strong about maintaining all the levels of the community and teaching the younger people to speak up about their insights and teaching them as well to listen carefully to their elders, the people who have lit the fire before them. They know how to light the fire. Learn from that, learn from that and move your own life. Then, you yourself will begin to distill the experiences of your life into something that not only calms your own manner of living but is a sign to the other. People begin to watch you light the fire. “How does she do that? How does he live like that?” How did they get through that tragedy? What did they do as a result of it?
That’s the mixing of all the wisdoms of the community into the strengthening of the community that is the family or the strengthening of the community that is the workforce or the strengthening of the community that is the city. It’s bringing wisdom and spiritual maturity and this honest search for the serene life, the good life, the life that concentrates on what a life is worth. Those are the people we look for. Those are the people we follow.
TS: Sister Joan, I just have one final question for you. A central question in my own spiritual quest for many, many years was looking at what happens when we die and feeling my own anxiety, really, about that, and that fueling much of a spiritual search. I’m wondering, for you here at 81 with your own contemplation and reflection on that, what your views are about dying.
JC: Well, I don’t have any anxiety about it. I know why, because life has been so good. I have no doubt that what’s to come will be just as good. Do I fantasize about what’s to come? No. That’s, again, the [inaudible] wrote once, “First, God created us and then we created God.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I heard somebody else say, “Well, do you believe in God?” The person said, “I don’t know if I do or not.” I said, “Well, what do you believe in?” He said, “Well, this much I’m pretty sure of: either there is a God and that God who created us loves us and there’s nothing to worry about, or there isn’t a God and then there’s nothing to worry about.”
I am convinced that this creation came out of love and this movement to another stage in it will also come out of love. I’m not anxious then. I’m not anxious. I know it’s coming soon. It’s the last great adventure. Either we’ll go into eternal silence and what Chardin called “the flow of life,” or there is somehow or other an eternal consciousness and we’ll be in it and it will be of God. That’s all I know.
TS: Sister Joan, for me in my life, you’ve been one of those elders that I have been watching light the fire. I’ve been reading your weekly email from The Monastic Way and it has a grit and a realness and a call forward that always moves me. I’m so happy to have had this chance to have this conversation with you. Thank you so, so much, so much.
JC: Thanks to you, Tami. It’s been a real conversation. You don’t hear much like this in our communication system anymore. Thank you for making that great gift and allowing other people to honor their thinking too. God bless you.
TS: God bless you. God bless you. I’ve been speaking with Sister Joan Chittister. She’s the author of more than 50 books including Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, and Between the Dark and Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life. What a great joy to speak to such an elder who is a true person of faith. SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.