Joan Chittister Speaks of Wisdom, Graceful Aging

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Joan Chittister Speaks of Wisdom, Graceful Aging


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


Just knowing there's a Joan Chittister offers much comfort to many. And, of course, discomfort to some.

Through four decades, some 30 books, hundreds of NCR columns and countless public appearances, this Benedictine monastic from Erie, Pa., lets no one get away with cheap religion. Hers is a Catholicism of substance and challenge, where faith is not defined by easy orthodoxies and where difficult questions are embraced. She's fearless, never afraid to take on abusive authority, be it in military or clerical garb. Reliably, week after week, she gives an insightful woman's take on current events, often providing a previously unexamined perspective. She gives a forum to the voiceless, offering solace to the powerless.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

We are amazed at her energy, amazed that her frenetic activism doesn't seem to capsize her calm spiritual center. She redefines the very word "monastic" with her personal merging of Lectio Divina, reading habits, note-taking, and a sharp eye on world events. And she's recently moved to electronic speed with the purchase of an e-book reader, her new Amazon Kindle.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister: prioress of the Benedictines of Erie; president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses; president of the Federation of St. Scholastica; president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; U.S. councilor-delegate of the International Union of Superiors General. These were just some of the positions she held--before she was 45.

Having skipped past 70 recently with no apparent signs of slowing down, she's increasingly sensitive to the gifts of time and aging. Her writings seem to reflect this. They are focused, simple and clear. No time for the extraneous. And all the while more questions need to be answered, assumptions pondered anew. All of this energy has drawn her to matters that rest beneath denominations and creeds, into wisdom, old and new.

This is evidenced by her latest two books: Welcome to the Wisdom of the World and Its Meaning for You: Universal Spiritual Insights Distilled from Five Religious Traditions and The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.

I wanted to understand why.

It was 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, the time I was to call. Benedictine Sr. Maureen Tobin, Chittister's good friend and assistant, was quick to answer. "Can you call Joan back in five? Somebody just phoned her."

The second time I got straight through. "Tom, so good to hear your voice," she answered, somewhat out of breath.

"You OK?"

"I'm fine. I'm fine. Really, I am. What you see is what you get. A bit jetlagged. This has been an intense October."

Chittister, writer and lecturer, is also founder and executive director of Benetvision, the Erie, Pa.-based Center for Contemporary Spirituality, a kind of multiplatform Chittister publishing house. Somehow between books and travel she manages to feed the center with her reflections on the spiritual life. And then there is Chittister, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders and co-chair of the Tikkun Community, a Network of Spiritual Progressives.

"Jet-lagged?" I asked.

She explained she had flown in from Chicago the night before after a quick "in and out" to Newfoundland, which followed another "in and out" to New York. She added that the next day she was off to California for a women's conference sponsored by Maria Shriver. And she said she was looking forward to it!

Welcome to the Wisdom of the World takes the reader through five wisdom traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, asking five questions of each tradition. It combines stories Chittister has gleaned from many sources with lessons taken from each. Each tradition highlights a special wisdom stream: Hinduism's eternal meaning; Buddhism's enlightenment and desirelessness; Judaism's community of justice and joy; Christianity's call to the beatitudes; and Islam's community of witness and submission. …

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