Good Work is Our Gift to the Future: Joan Chittister

An interview with Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister is an author, speaker, and Benedictine nun based in Erie, PA. Her many books show readers a way forward in life with resilience. A recent work, The Monastery of the Heart (BlueBridge, 2011) turns to the value of the Rule of Benedict for the twenty-first century. Her new book, due out this spring, is Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy (Image).

REFLECTIONS: Much of your writing has focused on the purpose of life and calling. What are you arguing in the new book?

JOAN CHITTISTER: In an older generation, there was one great life decision to confront: what are you going to do with yourself? But I say there now are three decisions to face. One is the familiar one: what am I going to do with my life? But the second one comes in mid-life and asks: who am I? In the 1940s and 50s, people started to ask this question about their work: does my achievement to this point really represent who I am? Is that me? Am I finished? Should I be doing something else now?

So the third decision relates to what we still today call retirement: how do you want to spend it? We’ll spend about one-third of our lives there. This is a question about legacy, capstone. Do you want to drift during those years or do you want to realize that that twenty or thirty years are for you to take?

We’re in an opportune moment. We must try to get such questions into the conversation. Right now, what do young people hear from the adults? They hear, “You want to study art? There’s no money in art. I didn’t send you to Yale just to study art!”

REFLECTIONS: Did your own sense of vocation evolve slowly? Was there a moment of epiphany?

CHITTISTER: I know this might sound strange, but I knew at age three that I wanted to be a sister. My father had died just before I was three, and my mother took me to the funeral home. The family was horrified that I would be exposed to death like that. But my mother told them that I had a right to grieve just as she did. I was amazed to see two strange figures standing at the casket. I asked my mother about them. She told me they were nuns – holy people who will stay there through the night until the angels come to take Daddy to God. I decided I wanted to do that!

So I went to Catholic schools – and I don’t have any horror stories about the sisters that apparently some people do. They were loving. They laughed. They played with us. They were human, oh yes, but valiant. And I see now that there was a little feminist in me at that time: watching those nuns, I saw competent, capable women at work. I didn’t see that anywhere else in my life. And so that vocation was a great fit for me. I entered the monastery at sixteen.

REFLECTIONS: Writing emerged as your gift, a calling within your religious vocation. By now, you’ve written some forty books. In The Monastery of the Heart, you summarize Benedictine principles you live by. It sounds like you have lived with these ideas for decades. Why did you decide to write it now?

CHITTISTER: No question it’s a book for now. My argument is that the twenty-first century needs a sixth-century philosophy, the Rule of Benedict. It’s an approach that has endured. The situation we find ourselves in today proves the need for people to look at another philosophy of life and see if it will work better than what we go by now.

REFLECTIONS: You’re not advocating that everybody join the monastery. Can monastic wisdom translate into the secular life of society and politics?

CHITTISTER: Oh yes!Look at the pillars of life that the Rule spells out – peace, hospitality, stewardship, community, good work, prayer, holy leisure. Remove just one or two pillars, and don’t be surprised if your own endurance is threatened. We’re in a position much like the thirteenth or sixteen century – society gets shaky, and major institutions collapse, because the culture’s values are losing the spiritual spine that holds them together.

Take something obvious like peace. As a nation, we’ve really been at war since 1941. We are eating up our resources. We are eating up the insides of the human soul. You can’t have external peace without internal peace. If people are at war inside of themselves, they can’t offer much to the bigger world that is outside themselves.

The Rule says we are to give to those who need it and take only what we need. Yet the culture has raised individualism to pathological levels. To the ego, there’s never enough. We need to learn “enoughness” and declare: I have enough. There’s always a community element to the Rule: there are other people to think about.

REFLECTIONS: You say that “good work,” in Benedictine terms, is labor that “continues the co- creation of the world.” How does that apply to the twenty-first century economy?

CHITTISTER: Benedictines support ourselves. We believe work means earning your bread, making real things. You don’t get it by making profits on subprime mortgages, loans you know are bad. Good work is a path toward self-fulfillment, but there’s always a spiritual function, a community function. Good work, no matter what sort of work it is, helps make the world a more humane place, touching the hurting places of humanity. Good work is also our gift to the future. It’s what we leave behind. It’s our share of the holy-making enterprise that is work.

REFLECTIONS: With all the evidence of social crisis, what gives you hope?

CHITTISTER: Something wonderful is going on in the U.S. – it’s always been there, and I’ve always believed in it – the formation of “communities of communities.” We are a nation of intentional communities, people who come forward to organize for a specific cause or passion. It’s who we are. Now, such movements and communities start with great enthusiasm, but as time goes by it becomes difficult for groups to sustain that passion. What they need is a spiritual spine in order to endure – something greater, more eternal than the particular cause. I think the pillars of the Rule can provide that.

REFLECTIONS: Your new organization, Monasteries of the Heart, encourages local activism – prison work, discussion groups, environmental advocacy, non-violent resistance such as solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. People can join at How is it going? Is it more than a website?

CHITTISTER: There are now more than 4,000 members in Monasteries of the Heart. They create intentional local groups, each defining its own issue or action to take. Everywhere I am seeing these little pockets of flame, a passion for changing the world. We’re all looking for a way out of the current despair. The culture has been too long in dollar signs and too little in signs of the heart. I’m trying to start a conversation that gives a sense of serenity and courage as we go – a movement that springs out of contemplative foundations that can sustain energy, hope, and action too. As my mother would say, don’t be good for nothing!