The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Joan Chittister on “Speaking of Faith”

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Joan Chittister’s writing has moved me to love God more than that of almost any other modern writer. I keep coming back to her little book entitled Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light.

She’s interviewed on Krista Tippett’s excellent public radio program in the U.S. this week – and, if you like, you could stream the audio from the Speaking of Faith website or download the podcast. Below is an excerpt-

– in Krista Tippett’s words – from SOF’s email newsletter. I didn’t take time to re-connect the links, so do click HERE if you want the real thing, links and all.

And grab a pencil – you’ll be wanting to remember what you hear!


This week on public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas:

Obedience and Action
In over 50 years as a Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister has emerged as a powerful and at times uncomfortable voice in Roman Catholicism and in global politics. If women were ordained in the Catholic Church in our lifetime, some say, she should be the first woman bishop.


“A Whirlwind in Purple”
I first met Joan Chittister a decade ago. I’d heard many entertaining and admiring stories about Sr. Joan’s passion and intelligence and wit. She would scribble notes for her next book or column during board meetings, people told me, and occasionally look up to …

deliver a line that recapped and energized the entire conversation.

Speaking of Faith host Krista Tippett

Always on the go, she had squeezed me into her schedule during a three-hour layover at Chicago Midway airport. She was, I wrote in my notes, “a whirlwind in purple.” Several times she whisked out a miniature dictaphone and recorded questions and reminders for herself and her assistant. She’d published four books already that year alone. And she was as fun as she was formidable. “I’ve never missed a party,” she told me, “and I don’t like to be left out of one.” If I possessed any lingering stereotypes about nuns, I left them forever behind in that airport lounge.

For some, the words that describe Joan Chittister might seem to be a contradiction in terms: Roman Catholic monastic, interfaith social activist, feminist. But I understand Joan Chittister to be at one and the same time engaged with worldly reality and with the sense of paradox often found at the heart of religion. She is a modern woman who draws her sustenance and vision from immersion in a 1500-year-old monastic tradition.

She is a committed member of a small Benedictine community in Erie, Pennsylvania and a global activist. She is an influential, sometimes uncomfortable voice in her beloved Roman Catholic Church — a hero to some, a heretic to others. She is guided in all of this, she says, by her vow of obedience.

We talk about that vow in this program and how her understanding of religious virtue has evolved in response to changes in the church and the world. In the pre-Vatican II church by the mid-1960s, she says, “obedience” had come to be synonymous with conformity. But at some point for her and others, she says, this gave way to “a sensitivity to the impulses of grace in our lives.” For Joan Chittister, this has included responsiveness to other faiths.

She is known for the Sufi Muslim parables by which she often drives home a Christian point in her speeches and writings. She co-chairs a global consortium of religious women and spiritual leaders — Protestant, Hindu, Catholic, and Buddhist. For Joan Chittister, such partnership represents a deepening, not a refutation, of Catholic theology. If God is one as Christianity asserts, she asks, why are we surprised that different religious people can think and work as one on matters of justice and poverty and the human spirit?

This conversation followed shortly on the heels of the Episcopal church’s election of its first female presiding bishop. Joan Chittister is an outspoken and controversial voice on the role of women in the Roman Catholic world. She is fiery and fearless in proposing that a new and open discussion must be held in earnest. The point of feminism, she insists, is not simply to empower women but to make our culture and the church more whole. But she takes a quintessentially religious — and distinctly Benedictine — long view of time. She resists the current stance of Catholic orthodoxy, but at the same time she honors tradition as life-giving and communal and necessarily slow to change.

We are living in a crossover time, Sr. Joan declares. We are at a moment in history when every structure and institution is in flux and up for grabs — religious, political, marital. The old answers don’t work as they once did, and the new answers have yet to be discerned. People are searching within and beyond spiritual traditions — reading books, seeking new community, and perhaps even listening to public radio with a new ear — as they pursue answers that make sense in the context of their lives.

Joan Chittister, I think, is a public figure for this crossover time — articulating the questions and holding them up boldly. We will not all agree with all of her ideas. But in consonance and dissonance with other bold voices and ideas, she is helping to energize our most important discussions and move them forward.

To Go Where There Is No Road and Leave a Path and Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period by Sr. Joan Chittister

Krista Recommends Reading:
Leading the Way: To Go Where There Is No Road and Leave a Path and Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period
by Sr. Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister has written over 30 books, and you can find her columns for the National Catholic Reporter and Beliefnet online. I’d like to recommend a few of her speeches for reading — they’re wonderful, pithy, passionate, and thought-provoking. A few are quoted in our program and can be found on our Web site: “Leading the Way: To Go Where There Is No Road and Leave a Path” and “Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period.”


Written by Monte

June 30, 2006 at 2:02 pm

Posted in Discipleship, Women

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