Joan Chittister's humility

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Humility is a word that rarely intrudes into my vocabulary. It is unfashionable and reproachful. I was a little surprised, then, to find 12 recent columns in The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) devoted to the topic, and that the writer was Joan Chittister. Both magazine and writer are often labelled as liberal rather than as traditional.

Joan Chittister during a pre-tape of a 2006 episode of Meet the Press discussing topics related to religion, faith in politics in the US. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)Chittister, a Benedictine sister, now 83 years old, has written and lectured extensively on religious and political topics. She has the gift peculiar to many men and women in contemplative orders of going straight to the point of what matters and of pointing out when various emperors have no clothes. She has been a consistent critic of inequality, violence and discrimination on the basis of race and gender in her home country, the United States.

Growing up in poverty with her mother and violent stepfather and affected by polio as a young religious sister, she had to struggle to come to an independent voice. She has called out violence and discrimination against women in church and state. She recognised early and wrote often that the Catholic Church in the west had largely lost the trust and allegiance of women. This, and her forthrightness and leadership among women religious in the United States, made her suspect to many Catholic authorities and a natural target in the Catholic culture wars.

As a result some have portrayed her unfairly as a feminist, secular warrior in religious dress. Certainly not as one who would devote 12 magazine columns to humility. But those familiar with her writing on social, cultural and political issues recognise that it is fed by her life as a Benedictine Sister, and particularly by her deep, lived reflection on the Rule of St Benedict, whose feast day occurred on 11 July. Her NCR columns draw on chapter six of the Rule in which Benedict describes the 12 steps of humility. She explores his thoughts to illuminate and critique aspects of our contemporary culture.

In her discussion she remarks on the similarity between the world of Benedict's day and our own. She sees both as affected by rapid change, marked by the breakdown of culture and civility. In introducing each of the rules she begins by describing examples of unattractive cultural traits in the public life of the present day United States and elsewhere.

These include an emphasis on individual will, a focus on 'me', my ideas and my gifts by politicians, a desire for autocracy that will impose simple solutions on complex problems, a concern to project an attractive image rather than to live attractively, a self-imposed pressure to succeed through unbroken work, the conviction that our nation and groups are infallibly the best, narcissism, and recourse to mockery as the staple in public debate.

She sets these tendencies against the steps outlined in Benedict's Rule, allowing the impoverishment of our public culture to emerge when set against apparently primitive instructions for living. The wisdom of the Rule emerges vindicated by the comparison.

 

"Within that context, obedience is a disposition of listening seriously to what one is asked to do within the community. It is set within a conversation."

 

She recognises that for a modern reader some of the rules, such as the diatribe against laughter, a commonplace in classical thought, will seem to be absurd. Other steps will seem to diminish rather than to expand humanity. Benedict's remark that 'The third degree of humility is that a person for love of God submit himself to his Superior in all obedience' seems at first sight to endorse an authoritarian and infantalising regime. Chittister recognises that the identification of obedience with submission to rules has often characterised religious congregations and the Catholic Church as a whole.

She interprets Benedict's rule, however, in a way that sets it against the authoritarian impulse represented in some church circles and, more significantly, in such world leaders as Trump, Duterte, Putin and Orban. She emphasises the broad communitarian context within which Benedict sets obedience. There, obedience reflects the love of God which reaches out to all others in the world and so in the monastery. Obedience serves the common good, and it reflects acceptance of the responsibilities of those charged with ensuring it.

Within that context, obedience, as its derivation suggests, is a disposition of listening seriously to what one is asked to do within the community. It is set within a conversation. It will be reflected in following routines and regulations, but these are always measured against how they serve the common good. If, in new circumstances, they no longer do so, conversation will lead to their modification.

This is miles away from conceiving obedience as unreflective observance of rules, and just as distant from glorifying the strong leader who makes laws arbitrarily and insists on their observance. Such views of obedience neglect the communitarian context in which alone it makes sense. They are ruinous in churches and political societies.

In her reflections, as in her life, Joan Chittister demonstrates that she lives in the Catholic tradition, has studied it deeply and goes out to others to invite them to draw on its resources.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Joan Chittister during a pre-tape of a 2006 episode of Meet the Press discussing topics related to religion, faith in politics in the US. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Joan Chittister

 

 

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Existing comments

Five years ago, while visiting London and staying in a very nice hotel in up-market Westminster, I chanced upon a small op shop in a very posh street. The op shop reminded me of one in my home town and I browsed happily. I came upon a small book "The Glenstal Book of Prayer: A Benedictine Prayer Book". The price 50 pence. It was in immaculate condition and on returning home I covered it in good quality plastic coating and left it on one of my bookshelves. An act of humility (something I am not prone to) saw me retrieve it not so long ago and start dipping into it. It can only help.
Pam | 15 July 2019


Benedictine nuns are renowned for their independence from the hierarchy of the church. Many in mind/thought, and some in action. Joan is as true a leader, activist, thinker and Mystic as was Thomas Merton.
Deni Sevenoaks | 15 July 2019


I like the Rule of St Benedict. And have a happy memory of riding up to his Monestry at the top of Mount Casino, on the backseat of my cousin's Vespa. My cousin was 15 and l was 14 at the time. We were not given permission to enter. We didn't mind. My cousin was very humble and very softly spoken. RIP
AO | 15 July 2019


Insightful, challenging but non-combatative. A method for our time. Thank you, Andy.
Denis Fitzgerald | 16 July 2019


In matters prudential, which is the overwhelming majority of matters which become the subject of decision, there is no infallibility and all leaders who are sound in mind know that they should listen to different sources of advice before acting. However, to disobey a superior after he has followed this process is, in almost all cases, unjustifiable mutiny.
roy chen yee | 17 July 2019


To live with humility is a practice that requires ongoing practise that continuously looks out and within. Chittister demonstrates that to live this way does not need to be one lived quietly but instead engaged and responsive. The break down of civility and care across our society is definitely apparent although so is great generosity on both a small and large scale. I appreciate being reminded of the difference we can make in our communities as individuals in the way we listen, act and live. Thank you Andy.
Selena | 18 July 2019


Thank you, Andrew, for this piece. I knew little of Joan Chittister's story, although I enjoy her writings. People can rarely be summed up in a soundbite or three word slogan and your article reminds me that it does them and all of us a disservice when we do this.
Catherine | 18 July 2019


Dialogue is a wonderful thing for healing divisions and personal hurt, sprinkled with a little humility it can even change hostility into a new understanding of personal dignity. To be humble is from the Latin (hummis) meaning to be grounded, not humiliated. Andrew can you explain why archbishop Comensoli has banned Sr. Joan Chittister from coming to Melbourne to speak at a Catholic Education Conference next year?
Trish Martin | 18 July 2019


A timely article, Andrew! Joan is such a unique and respected leader in both our church and world. Her passion for Benedict's Rule has made it so accessible and connected to daily living, for both individuals and an online world community. She is indefatigable in the quest for a living Gospel, always inviting us, somewhat uncomfortably. into being more genuine followers of Christ. I have long hoped that she would be invited to be a Cardinal, or at least a member of a dicastery. Insightful leadership might have acknowledged well before this, her unparalleled role and gift in our struggling church.
vivien williams | 18 July 2019


Vivien Williams makes a good point - of course, women should be amongst the leaders of the Church. The Church chooses to deprive itself of the wisdom, talents and gifts of wonderful leaders like Joan Chittister simply because they are women - an unChrist-like, silly and terribly discriminatory policy.
Peter Johnstone | 18 July 2019


When St Benedict was formalising the fairly loose and informal monastic setup which had existed earlier in the East, the Empire in the West was threatened with both physical and moral destruction by what were known as the Barbarian Invasions. Monte Casino and its imitators were fortresses both spiritual and cultural against this threatened destruction and anarchy. Joan Chittister has a real sense of Catholic and Benedictine history. As an American and an American Catholic nun, she is living on one of the religious fault lines of the 20th and 21st Centuries. I would class her stance as radical in the sense of a radical being someone who wants to get back to the roots of what it's about. By saying this I neither endorse nor disendorse anything she stands for. My spirituality is not hers. It is something I have come to through much trial. My attitude to her is to let her continue speaking. Suppression does not solve the problem. It only makes it worse.
Edward Fido | 18 July 2019


JF. It is actually Monte Cassino. My spelling mistake also.
AO | 19 July 2019


ED. It is actually Monte Cassino. I made the spelling mistake first. The Italians say, ''Che casino'' when something is a complete mess. Funny.
AO | 19 July 2019


A wonderful introduction to Joan, Andy! I first encountered her in 'No Time for Nicodemus', in which she opened up the Gospel story in such a way as to make sense of the fear that some of Jesus' supporters must have felt, bringing out the point of the account in ways that brought it to life! I must endorse Trish Martin's question: why have the Bishops blackballed her? We have at least one Jesuit Bishop that you could send your article to, Andy; and I shall certainly take the matter up with mine. Those following the Benedictine rule are certainly special. When Basil Hume was appointed to Westminster the first thing he did was to emphasise the charism of hospitality. This did much to heal the terrible schism between ourselves and the Anglicans and, when he was dying, the Queen visited him in hospital to confer on him the highest civilian accolade available to the monarch: Companion of Honour.
Michael Furtado | 19 July 2019


I recently heard that Joan Chitchester was coming to Melbourne for an education conference but that our Archbishop vetoed it. Why? What are the Church authorities afraid of? From what I have read Joan is a strong, thoughtful and deeply spiritual person.
Kathryn | 20 July 2019


Sr Chittister demonstrates her humility by staying the course, unlike countless intelligent and faith-filled women who have been forced to leave their congregations in order to safeguard their integrity. For Sr Joan - an abbess in her own right - to leave would be to cave into the petty dictates of those clerical men who exercise powerful positions of control in the Church and who see their role as gate-keepers rather than servants of God's People. Another immensely talented religious woman, Lavinia Byrne, a former Loreto nun and General Secretary of the British Council of Churches, who advanced a very strong theological case for the ordination of women, backed by Cardinal Hume, left the Institute because she was bullied to the point of being silenced: her books were burned by the monks at Collegeville Press in South Bend, Indiana, by instruction of the Vatican. Dr Byrne sweetly remarked that she hoped the monks, who endure a winter harsher than any we experience in Australia, were at least kept warm as a result! She famously remarked: "Not to ordain women is based on outdated metaphors, e.g., the Church is the “bride of Christ”, so she requires male priests as celibate husbands!"
Michael Furtado | 20 July 2019


Joan had huge impact on me as a woman discerning a call to ordination. Listening deeply to what God was calling me to, came from her reflections on Benedict and the Benedictine way of life. I heard her speak in Sydney about 18 years ago and was inspired all over again. Jorie PS I became a priest in the Anglican church.
Jorie Ryan | 21 July 2019


It would be safe to say that Catholic opinion on Joan Chittister varies quite widely, depending on where an individual is coming from. I would suspect, if you raised the lady's name with Cardinal Raymond Burke, he would be quite apoplectic. But I always see him more at home in Late Medieval/Early Modern times with the witch burnings and Crusades against the Cathars, Muslims and other 'enemies of God'. Those with more moderate views would probably not be so antipathetic. Joan reminds me very much of the late Sir Brian Hone, long-time Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School, whose avowed intention was to make us think. She does. Joan is disarmingly modest and does not have tabs on herself. Regarding the matter of women's ordination in the Catholic Church, you are entering into an emotional minefield when you raise it. There are theologians who say the magisterium will always preclude this. To debate with them requires a certain level of theological knowledge so you understand what you are actually disagreeing on. It is, sadly, a bitterly divisive topic. In the Anglican Communion OOW has led to a de facto schism. We live in difficult times.
Edward Fido | 22 July 2019


Yes I agree humility and obedience is a line that can be found. Benedictine nuns are renowned for their independence from the hierarchy of the church. Hildegard of Bingen is one and if you want to see her Benedictine way played out over her 81 years with Popes , Bishops and Emperors, my book to be released on 26th July in Benedicts's month Hildegard of Bingen: A Poetic Journey is the story of her grappling with obedience and listening and there is very little difference between 12th century and today.
Colleen Keating | 22 July 2019


I am absolutely sure neither Joan nor Andy want to set themselves up as the modern day equivalent of the Golden Calf, to be worshipped. One of the deplorable effects of the dreadful clericalism extant in this country and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s is it nurtured spiritual infantilism where Father/Brother/Sister was always right and to be obeyed implicitly. Hence the non-reportage of paedophilia, which went to the highest levels in the Church, including the late Cardinal Hume, who was guilty of this whilst Abbot of Ampleforth. Thanks to Hume and others Ampleforth College still does not have a clean bill of health here. Downside, a Benedictine Abbey from which some of the earliest leaders of the Catholic Church in this country came, also had the same problems with their school. So just belonging to a religious order in these times sadly does not guarantee anything. Glenstal Abbey in Ireland currently harbours a monk, who, whilst at Ealing Abbey in England, was 'a person of interest' to the Met. The Augean Stables are still filthy. Beware clerical worship. Any decent cleric would tell you to avoid it. I'm sure Joan would.
Edward Fido | 22 July 2019


Well said, Sr Coll; I look forward to reading your much anticipated book on Hildegard!
Michael Furtado | 22 July 2019


I’ve been a passionate admirer of Sr Joan since I read ‘Scarred by Struggle, Inspired by Hope’, a truly inspirational book-length reflection on the human journey. I was shocked to read in the comments that Archbishop Comensoli had barred her from speaking at a Catholic education conference in his archdiocese. After researching this a little, however, I wonder if that is indeed the case? According to the conference organisers, no-one had received a formal invitation - Sr Joan received an email inviting her, possibly sent by someone who did not realize that all invitations have to be approved by the Archbishop before they are issued. There was no suggestion that the Archbishop had specifically barred Sr Joan. Of course he may actually have done so, but in the current climate perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt? It would be a good thing if he himself would speak to this issue- and hopefully re-issue the invitation himself, via the normal processes. We need transparency if we are to rebuild trust.
Joan Seymour | 23 July 2019


Edward Fido draws a long bow in introducing to this discussion the occurrence of child abuse at three British Benedictine boys' colleges. Regrettably, there wouldn't be a male congregationally-operated boys' school anywhere in the world, nor any non-Catholic boys' college, that hasn't at some point been tainted by the stain of child abuse, and so the pathology that accounts for such behaviour - not just its condemnation - is almost exclusively a male thing and has no part in this discussion. While I am notionally aware of a handful of female religious who have abused children, I know of no instances of female religious abusers on quite as grand a scale as the aberration to which he alludes. It would therefore appear churlish of him to draw Sr Chittister's name and reputation into this discussion, as if to imply that all who regard elevation to the priesthood, whether male or female, as a mark of God's favour, are somehow blind to the dangers of clericalism. In any case, the red hat is not an accolade reserved only for clerics but has at various times historically been conferred on laymen. The argument here is about gender equality and merit-based church leadership.
Michael Furtado | 23 July 2019


MF. It depends on what is classified as child abuse. I have friends in Europe, whose family home was once a nun's convent during medieval times. As small children after digging in the garden one afternoon, they discovered the skulls and skeletons of several tiny babies. Good to remember: When darkness is at its darkest, a star shines the brightest.
AO | 24 July 2019


Not to quibble, AO, but virtue only shines where darkness exists. In the chilling instance you cite, similar to one recently featured in a film about an Irish convent in which charitable works, long-preceding the evolution of the secular state - itself paradoxically responsible for the medically-supervised surgical-termination of the lives of thousands of unwanted and usually illegitimate children - were the social responsibility of nuns, who supervised their welfare from birth to adoption. In my youth I was privileged to observe the operation of one such system in India, where, despite the prevalence of social practices and customs that at the time were critiqued by the likes of Christopher Hitchens as medieval and primitive, these offered the only chance that children had of survival in the dog-eat-dog world of premodern societies. In the instance to which I allude, children attending St Teresa's met annually with those of St Paul's Orphanage, the former beneficiaries of parents who could afford school fees ultimately spent in caring for the latter who, with their blonde hair and blue eyes, were hardly the issue of European nuns, but instead of European tea-planters and Assamese tea-pluckers. The nuns had no alternative choices available to them!
Michael Furtado | 24 July 2019


Michael Furtado. Michael, whilst I have no disagreement or criticism of your posts, (I always appreciate them) it should be noted that Sr. Joan was never an abbess. She was a prioress, which is different. Benedictine ‘sisters’, such as her community at Erie, Pennsylvania, are part of the Benedictine family, but are not enclosed monastically. Hence, her public work and that of her fellow sisters. They have a prioress not an abbess. Only enclosed Benedictine ‘nuns’ have an abbess, who is ranked with that of a bishop, though not ordained, obviously. Prioresses do not have that same ranking. A small point, but, having followed Joan Chittister in her speaking and preaching for years, she would be the first to point this out.
Thomas Amory | 29 July 2019


Great Thanks for the clarification, Thomas Amory!
Michael Furtado | 30 July 2019


It is, though (as one respondent has mentioned) regrettable that this "introduction" made no mention of St Chittister's rebuke by Australian Catholicism on account (as it was reported) of a veto by the Archbishop of Melbourne. In "The Tablet" the Acting Director of Catholic Education in Melbourne was quoted as saying that there never had been an "invitation" and that "miscommunication had occurred. It that is correct, the matter could be resolved by a release of all communication between Sr Joan and the various Australian authorities, as well as all communication between the Archbishop's office and the various education offices. This has not happened -- which suggests some duplicity to me.
John Joseph CARMODY | 05 August 2019


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