Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Sr. Joan Chittister Gets Personal: New Dimensions of Benedictine's Life Feature in Biography, Author Says

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Sr. Joan Chittister Gets Personal: New Dimensions of Benedictine's Life Feature in Biography, Author Says

Article excerpt

BOSTON * "Who writes a biography about a nun? Can you think of anything duller?"

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister posed these questions at an event marking the publication of the new biography Joan Chittister: Her Journey From Certainty to Faith (Orbis Books). The predominantly female audience at the book launch at Boston's Pucker Gallery could not have disagreed with Chittister more.

The evening on Oct. 6 featured Chittister and author Tom Roberts in a conversation reflecting on the origins of the biography and insights gained from the experience.

"The interior Joan was worth showing people because it was ultimately behind this woman who is helping to revolutionize religious life and confronting the church with enormous questions in an integral way," said Roberts, who is editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter. "There are dimensions to Joan's life that are very pastoral that not many people know about."

A biography was not what Roberts had in mind when he began his interview with Chittister at her Benedictine community in Erie, Pa., in 2011. He was interviewing her to "freshen up the files"--a journalistic euphemism for updating her obituary.

Roberts realized that despite a decades-long working relationship--including stints covering a conclave together and serving as her editor--he didn't really know what made Chittister the woman she is today.

So he said to her, "Let's start at the beginning."

"I found myself at a three-way intersection," Chittister said. "The first is, he's asking questions that are so personal, they demand an answer I've never, ever given and have never intended to give. The second is, he's asking questions that I know from own my years as a writer can really only go in one direction. The third road is, my nature is to be honest.

"I was face-to-face with my own authenticity. I had carefully constructed great scripts that were true, but were never complete. They were never totally revealing.

"I knew that in answering these questions the way they should be answered for the first time in my life, I would be stepping over a doorway I never wanted to open. I decided at that moment ... I would answer the questions."

"It was a remarkable moment," Roberts said. "She immediately began talking about some things she had not told anybody, about her growing-up years especially."

The conversation went on for about three more years.

The final result was Joan Chittister: Her Journey From Certainty to Faith, in which Chittister shares details on her early home life. An only child, Chittister was very close with her mother. Her father died before she turned 3. Her mother remarried, but Chittister's stepfather turned out to be a violent alcoholic. It was a difficult childhood that Chittister kept hidden from almost everyone in her life.

Roberts said it was the first time he saw Chittister--an internationally renowned speaker and leader--vulnerable.

He also spent five weeks conducting interviews with members of the Benedictine community to learn more about Chittister and her religious community

Chittister said Benedictines profess three vows: obedience, conversion and stability. Chittister, a Benedictine for more than 60 years, found the stability in her religious community that she never knew in her childhood.

"[Her] story is so powerful," Roberts said. "There is an arc of faith and an arc of development out of deep tradition. …

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