One of the marks of monastic communities is that they establish a rhythm of life that calls attention to the holy.
Sister Joan Chittister, who is herself part of a Benedictine monastic community, has translated a number of these practices into everyday life for us. You may have heard of Sister Joan–she’s a well-known activist and has made a couple of appearances alongside Oprah Winfrey. She’s also authored 60 books and has won numerous awards. We’re talking with her about her recent release: The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life.
Follow up on Sister Joan Chittister's latest projects at joanchittister.org
Sister Joan helped to found Monasteries of the Heart, an online community that shares weekly contemplative practices for developing monastic spirituality.
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Ryan Dunn (00:00):
Well sister Joan, thank you so much for joining us. You've just released a book about the monastic heart, which really is laying out a monastic rule or a rhythm of life for as you call it spiritual seekers. But spirituality is something that can be counter-cultural in a way, like it can be counter in a lot of ours assumptions to sound judgment. And so you introduce the idea of spiritual sanity in the opening of the book. Can you define for us what you mean by spiritual sanity and what that looks like?
Joan Chittister (00:32):
Yeah. Someplace in the book, early in the book, as you say, I use the term, the spiritual insanity and spiritual sanity, and I did it for two reasons. There are so many people out there who have been abused by religion over the years, in terms of unnatural un-normal imbalanced expectations or the turnover of themselves to their ministers. That's a, a misuse of religion. Well, the spiritual entity is when we are able to touch people with the awareness of their own goodness of God's presence of the love of life and the face of Jesus that meets us out of every window. We look, we are surrounded and immersed in the presence of God. That same that's called creation. That's called the mystical and the mysterious and the totally sensible. This whole notion that in me, somehow I have come to the notion that yes, God is with us.
Joan Chittister (01:51):
Not as a vendor, not as a candy machine, not as a happy warrior, not as a judge, but this notion of the creation of goodness by goodness is saying that saying anything else is insane. And so when people begin to exaggerate the demands of religion to exaggerate religious practices that are at norm exaggerate, a doomsday attitude toward what religion does to you, it becomes so war that the goodness naturalness and simply overwhelming dimension of creation, both around us and in our own lives. Our parents now overwhelming creation in our lives. Our grandmother, my grandmother used to say, when I was outside, NA now lost don't you be worrying. God sends angels, best theology I ever heard in my life. And there was no theological truth to it at all, but it was that sense of God being with you, whatever happens, you're going to come out of this.
Joan Chittister (03:03):
I'm not going to tell you to pray for sun on a rainy day, but I can promise you that that rain will be good for you that day. You will remember that's religious sanity, religious insanity, spiritual insanity is that which abuses the normal and blames God for it. It's also spiritual respect. It's not the war of orthodoxy. Who's checking off which behaviors, which lists, which holiness. No, no, all of this beauty was made for us and we must treat it beautifully. And all of these people were sent to us as wisdom figures. We must listen to that wisdom, all of these possibilities, some better than others must be considered thoughtfully so that our lives are normally happy and happily normal. And then we're some place where some place right in religion,
Ryan Dunn (04:10):
That word normal sticks out to me is you've offered us this resource for kind of normally recognizing God's presence through a, a rhythm of living through this monastic rule. Now, the pandemic that we've gone through that we're living through honestly has thrown a lot of us out of rhythm. Is that why you decided to write this book at this time?
Joan Chittister (04:32):
You just put your finger right on it. Before I could answer it. You did. The fact of the matter is that we're living in a very fragile and frail society right now. Everybody gets up in the morning wondering what's going to hit them today, whether they do with what happened yesterday to the uncle or the child or the marriage date or the party, what w it's all, it's all wrong. So in the middle of that fragility and frailty, I began to be concerned about not whether or not we could endure. We're a Hardy people. We've endured a lot of things, but what was happening is we had the insurance, but who was asking the question, how will we sustain it? Big pause. As the days went on and the restrictions got tighter and the isolation developed around us, we didn't see the neighbors. We didn't cross the backyard.
Joan Chittister (05:35):
We didn't go to the meetings. We didn't go to church. We didn't sit down for a Bible study. Everything that had been normally sane and sanely normal was now abnormal or missing completely. And I began to say to myself, John, somebody has to address this vacuum. Somebody has to at resources, what are the resources that we can develop in this empty space that can sustain us until the other resources come back? The friends that we trust, the ministers that we love, the prayer services that just lift all the weight off of our shoulders for at least that night, until all that comes back, how will we cultivate the spiritual part of our lives? When we know for instance, that we used to be so sure, so sure of everything we know we'll, we'll have a beautiful message and the pastor will come and all the flowers will be there and everybody will be prayed for this young couple.
Joan Chittister (06:48):
It will be. So that's all gone. I don't know where we'll get married. I don't know when we'll be able to get married. I don't know who will marry us. I don't know who will come to celebrate. If anybody, I don't know what weddings looked like anymore, or feel like anymore. All our certainties. Now we are moving from certainty to faith. The only substitute for certainty is faith. So I sat down. I said, what can you possibly do here, Joan, that that can give people any kind of comfort. And I said, well, I come from a religious order. The oldest in the church, the only thing older than the Benedict in order in the Catholic church is the Catholic church. So here we were in the late fifties, early sixties century in a period, not unlike this one, great corruption in government, overtaxation complete loss of concern for people, failing institutions, everywhere, insane government attempts the loss of the colonies, the breakdown of the legions.
Joan Chittister (08:06):
It was a society crumbling right over our heads. If you happen to recognize that it's not my fault. If you understand what that kind of institutional chaos can look like in any culture and into the middle of this comes this young student out of one of the villages up the hill, he goes to Rome. That's the Stanford, New York, Yale of its day is going to get the great classical education finds the, this the city of Rome in just absolute eruption and corruption and says, there is nothing here. A lot of 19 year old kids are finding that out. There's nothing here. There's nothing here for me. I thought was the perfect thing. It's not. So what did he do? He left Rome. He didn't stay, but here's where we come in. He goes away to figure out how he can live a better life than what he was seeing.
Joan Chittister (09:09):
There. He takes time off and in a not uncommon way in that society finds himself a little cave. And he goes in there as you and I would have hidden in the basement of the library where nobody could find us. And he thought things through again. And he said this to himself. He said, there's no way you can beat that. Don't, don't try to beat that. Well, you're not gonna beat, uh, corrupt Washington. You're not gonna beat an America militarism. You can't beat that. He said, well, why don't we do? And his answer to himself as we cannot compete with it, we cannot compel it. We cannot enforce it. The only thing we can do is to create a new life in the old life. There's a better way to live than we're living. And he begins to put this together. What would those ways be?
Joan Chittister (10:08):
And all of a sudden people begin to flaw. Here was somebody who was living normal, sanctity, something. They could all identify with a community here to hold them up, to support them to say, let's try this, let's do this. Let's be good to one another. Nevermind that stuff. We're not going to live like that. We're going to live differently. And he showed them how to cultivate a spiritual and a happy life to forget what we used to take for granted that we would get all of our certifications and all of our promotions and all of our wages raised. No, he said, what we're going to do is we're going to live a normal life, an ordinary life extraordinarily well. What's that mean? He said, well, we're going to, we're going to figure out what our priorities are. What are our priorities? Do good work, take care of one another, stay close to the heart of God, take care of things, steward the land, educate the people, bring them all in to this center of calm to this center of the mind of God, to the center of care.
Joan Chittister (11:36):
And out of that 1500 years later, my order and my life is still in that first little booklet called the regular, which means the guard rail doesn't mean rule regular doesn't mean rule. It means you're climbing high steps and you're holding on to a rail on each side that will guide you, guide your feet, that you can't see in the dark. And he said in this little Ray glum are the, are the means of the happy life. It's a little book about four inches wide and maybe five inches high. And there are 72 short chapters in the book. It has never been changed. It's the book he wrote at Monica CNO in Italy and five 20. We're still, I mean, by now, we're living in the 19th century. No. Are we living in the 20th century? No. We're living in the 21st century with what, with what I set out to do here to find the internal, spiritual resources that can say it's been a good day. Hmm.
Ryan Dunn (12:55):
Yeah. And I like that image of the guard rail because it, when we use a word like rule, we tend to think in terms of like checklists, then like, okay, I need to, I need to do this practice and this practice. And instead of following this rhythm, that leads us into a sense of presence. And I'd like to talk about a few of the practices that you introduced to us in the book, things that are part of your daily life. And I really appreciate that. You give us some of the background behind several of these practices. There are 50 of them. So of course we're not going to touch them all. But a few that stuck out to me, maybe because I see the space for them in my life. But one of those practices is stadio, which is kind of like a practice of consciousness it's being fully present and attentive before you begin an activity struck me because so often I'm prone to go quickly from one task to the next, uh, without much transition. Sometimes I go from one task to the next, without fully completing a task before I'm done. Yeah. So what are some ways that you have seen, or that you can offer as suggestions for practicing stadio in daily life?
Joan Chittister (14:03):
Yes. You've picked one of my absolutely favorite presentations here, Ryan, because it's a Latin word for us. We call it Stott spiel, but it is exactly what you've said. It's a place where you stop. It's that moment of consciousness about where I am that stops you. But I tell a little story about it in a book too. And it's every one of them are true, but this one was particularly problematic to me. We went into the little bit. It gave us a little black dresses and capes that we wore in those days. And they told us about how the day is divided in a monastery. And then they said prayer is at five o'clock. You must all be there by five to five. What'd you say? You said it said five o'clock then you, yes, sister it's at five o'clock then why am I going at five, five?
Joan Chittister (15:00):
I'll get there at five. No, absolutely not. You collect yourself, you stop what you're doing in a, and you go to B and you sit there for five minutes and you say, take a deep breath. I'm not going to remember the lesson that I was getting ready before I came. I'm not going to sit here and go through the day in my head. I'm going to ask myself now, what are we about to do here? We're praying Vesper. That's beautiful song. Yes, that'll be nice. I, yes. And then the bell goes thing being BP, BP, and the sisters began to pray. Stasio means get it together, kid.
Joan Chittister (15:51):
It asks you to be where you are and not to be so flustered. I always say, you know, I spend my life typing on the keyboard. While three people are asking me three different questions from three different positions in the same room. Now that's not stops you. That's not concentration. And that's the shattering of internal serenity. And that's one of the resources we have to develop in this period of a broken down society. Our regular life is gone and something has to fill it. That gives us a sense of peace and calm rather than fear. So Stasio is the thing that tells you to concentrate on what you're doing to concentrate on it very well, to pursue it with new depth and to use it when supper is a sick and you go to five, two, and you just kind of wait for somebody to yell, we're ready. You've given yourself a little piece of insight and a little piece of calm. Instead of racing through the front door, throwing down the bag, ripping off the coat and sliding into a chair. It's a huge difference on the soul. You may get the same meal and you may like it every bit as much, but I can tell you this much, it's not that meals, not doing anything for your soul. So Spotio is a very big thing in the Benedict tradition.
Ryan Dunn (17:34):
Well, tell us about practices of the choir. This idea that, you know, we're not necessarily a singing group, but we are a collection of voices. How do you find people integrating that practice right now?
Joan Chittister (17:45):
Well, of course in a monastery, you are it daily and three times a day, actually, but in a person's life that the notion of, of the choir is that with other people or with a good book or by listening to the news, but very thoughtfully, you begin to ask yourself when you see the headlines, what is the will of God for the world today? What's this God wish I was seeing on this television. What does God want me to do to promote that the choir is the monastic prayer groups. A on one side of the job will be on the other. We each have the Psalm book in our hand, you read the first passage and I answer you with a second. You say, oh God, come to my assistance. And the prayer group says, oh God, make haste to help me. So that what we're doing here is we are talking to one another about the pain of people through time, because that's all the Psalms are, the Psalms are poems that are telling you what people were going through.
Joan Chittister (19:04):
They're highly emotional. And they're very, very specific. So when you say to yourself, this is a group that is lifting up, not just to God, but to one another pay attention to this poverty. These people here are in great pain. Those people over there are being forgotten by the government. We have to find out what to do here that people need. That's the call of the choir to the chorus of the heart. This is saying to myself, I will not forget. So reading the newspaper thoughtfully, prayerfully, respectfully, hopefully that's part of that dialogue saying the Psalms yourself, getting a small sambal and you don't have to pray the whole song. Every day. You can pray five or six or eight passages from it versus from it. What you're asking yourself to do in quieter is to remember out loud, not just in a passing way, but, and again, consciousness is a big part of better than isn't not to go through life in a slippery, sloppy way.
Joan Chittister (20:27):
Notice where you are, notice what is going on. Notice what it's doing to your own heart. How are you feeling? Are you feeling it, feeling anything? Have you dismissed things? People from your mind a long time ago, you've never said walking down the street, God helped the people in Afghanistan today send, send strength to Afghanistan and I'm going to call friends and see if we can put some, some materials together. Is there anything we can do? The choir asks you remember the world, remember what other people are going through and pray for them, pray for them and pray that you yourself, because of their cry of pain, we'll become more compassionate, more aware, more open to the rest of the world.
Ryan Dunn (21:25):
So then the choir, then it isn't simply about us using our voice, but it's really about us aligning our voices with others
Joan Chittister (21:34):
Very well said. Yes. And so if you have, I I'm a big promoter of spiritual groups online. And we ourselves of course created one about 10 years ago, called monasteries of the heart. We have something like 22,000 people around the world who are moving in and out of that. And about 2,500 of them come every day, several times a day, pray with the community in the morning, do conversations about their own prayer life, their own concerns and the concerns of the world. We put up educational materials and we also put up a lot of things that will provide beauty to your life. Good art, great music, the sisters singing sites, so that you can just sit in front of a beautiful picture on your computer with hanging grapes. And you look at all of that for awhile. And that is the spiritual center that you're allowing your own system to form.
Joan Chittister (22:45):
So then on the bad day, when everything's crunched, when there's nothing there, when the leaves are gone, you remember that the grapes will return and that beautiful picture will take you there. So yes, the choir says, asks you to ask yourself, who are you? What are your concerns? Are you really concerned about people in housing projects in the middle of coven? I mean, is your heart soft enough to really hurt for them and to ask God to provide, uh, the strength and the energy and the consciousness to carry one another through. We're such busy people too busy to stop at the funeral home, too busy to visit someone in the hospital, too busy to make a telephone call to your sister-in-law that you haven't talked to for three months, too busy, too busy, acquire assess, stop, and listen, and respond. Somehow,
Ryan Dunn (23:55):
Speaking of busy-ness in the monastic cart, you give 50 practices, which seems like a lot, and yet as you get into them, and as we just heard, it's pretty clear that one practice leads into another. So as you were talking about the choir, there's also an invitation to a practice that I heard, like metanoia, which sounds to me like a, like a process of self-assessment or self-reflection. Oh, you're very
Joan Chittister (24:21):
Good. You're very good.
Ryan Dunn (24:23):
You're very kind. Thank you. What are the kinds of questions that you ask yourself in practicing something like metanoia and that self reflection, or self-assessment
Joan Chittister (24:35):
A story again, I had a firm, uh, who, uh, whose father was a minister. The kid had been brought up a PK, you know, a preacher's kid in his teenage years and probably had just about as much church as he could stand. And his father was one of the most effective preachers in the area, but he didn't really had any interest in following that line at all. So he was about 19 or something like that. And he got himself what a Harley Davidson, any took off on it, going across the country. And he took off top speed, mud roads, strange places, every bar on the highway, every cheap hotel lived like that for a good year and a half. And what I call the story of the prodigal father, he wakes up in a, in a cheap motel one morning and he says to himself, it looks at the ceiling and says, what in God's name am I doing here?
Joan Chittister (25:45):
And he thinks of his father, his picture of kindness and integrity and effectiveness. And he said, I'm out of my mind, what am I doing? How did I get here? And he goes out and he gets on the Harley and he heads back across the country. He gets to his home and he says, dad, I don't belong where I was, but it took me a long time to notice it. I'm sorry. His father says there's nothing to be sorry about great lesson. Come on. Some you got work to do in several years, several years later, without any pressure from his father whatsoever, he decides to go to the seminary, goes to the seminary as a pastorate for awhile, decides that that's really not his best gift working individually with individuals. And so he suddenly decides that or realizes that he has a great gift in teaching, in preaching, in bringing ideas together and in helping people think through religion and their religion.
Joan Chittister (26:56):
And he becomes a foremost producer of religious materials for a small churches in half of the country. Ah, what were we talking about? We're talking about metanoia. Why, what is metanoia in this? The, the commitment to commit yourself to your own spiritual transformation. That's what it is. My spirit turns inside out. It is a very, very profound moment in life. We used to call them what, um, mid-life everybody has one, everybody someplace along the line in a split second or five years of pain examine where they are and say, is this where I want to be? And if I did want to be at for some time, do I still want to be in? And isn't where I should be. That's spiritual transformation. And it means it's very deep seated. It says, take off your mask. Not the one that for COVID, but it isn't an absolute marvelous parallel.
Joan Chittister (28:13):
It says, put down the pretenses, ask yourself who you are and ask yourself who knows it and ask yourself who you've told your truth to and ask yourself how you will find the wisdom figure who will listen to this unraveling and rewrap leveling. While you say to yourself, I don't want to be that anymore. I intend to be this. And I, I want to talk to somebody about that. Metanoia means be transformed. I'm not saying religious self. I am not talking about a checklist. I'm not talking about so many visits to a Catholic church every day. I'm not talking about so many rosaries. If those things are good for you, by all means do them. But most of it, it must be real. It must be you looking at you. That's why we go to community forever. We go there in stability because it's easy to run away from yourself every five years. Very easy when you don't like the boss and you don't like the work and you don't like the pay, you don't like the feeling of responsibility. This generation has always said, I'll just get another job. I'll just someplace else. I'll just move out of
Ryan Dunn (29:45):
Near the end of, of your presentation in the book we're introduced to the practice, that outlines kind of having a beginner's mind, the head updation of a beginner's mind. And it's ironic that we are so informed through all this book. And then at the end, we're asked to have the beginner's mind. I suppose. There's not, was that by design?
Joan Chittister (30:11):
Yes. Yes, absolutely. Every single thing that takes us to an ND is inviting us to a beginning. And so the whole notion of the beginner's mind, which incidentally is a very Asian concept, a great depth of understanding about newness and possibility being the call to the fullness of ourselves, you know, uh, how many times you've heard people say, yeah, we're, we're moving out of Pennsylvania and where are you going? Oh, we're going to Maine. Well, that's a beautiful place. Isn't it? Well, maybe, but I don't know why we're going. We can just as well stay here. What are you afraid of? Well, you know, we don't have friends there and we don't know the neighborhood and it's a new job for both of us. And I don't know. I just wish we could say we're not going. The person with the beginner's mind says there's going to be a lot of new things here.
Joan Chittister (31:13):
And a lot of possibilities that knowing me, I probably don't want to take this little rule for beginners. The beginner's mind. Remember at the end of this ancient rule, what does this great man say? This is dear dear friends. This is nothing but a little rule for beginners. Every day of your life. You are being confronted with a spiritual oldness. You're frozen in place spiritually. And the beginner's mind says I can't allow these absolutes and these chains. And my past assumption today is a new day. It's not simply another day today. There is something that is going to give me the opportunity to really feel full of life. And today is an opportunity for me to work through some very dark feelings with some people. And I hope we can do it well. Today is a new day and it's a good day. The beginner's mind says nothing is frozen in time, nothing. And in this nothingness is possibility. And in this possibility is growth. And in that growth is God's will for me. How do
Ryan Dunn (32:38):
You cultivate that mindset
Joan Chittister (32:40):
Where you have to step over the lintel every once in a while and do something new? You know, Hey Ryan, yeah, let's go bowling tonight. They say it's really, oh no, I'm not going bowling. I couldn't do that. Well, come and watch it. I wouldn't be any good. It wouldn't be any good. That's right now, those are so small. That's mundane. But then imagine let's take a real one. The people who move in next door to me are Muslim. They're our neighbors. I've never known Muslims. And furthermore, I'm a little afraid of them. I don't like the clothes. I don't know anything about what they've learned or they come in here with another law, a person with a beginner's mom does a free Tata, takes the wife and kid with some toys, walks across the hall and knocks on the door and says, hi, my name is Brian.
Joan Chittister (33:42):
This is my son, my wife. I work over here. We'd love to have you for dinner sometime. Would you be willing to come? Are there any dietary problems you'd like to come? How wonderful, how about next Tuesday? And all of a sudden you're in a whole new world and God is in that world waiting for you there. And you will. I don't know what you're learn. Maybe when this is all over, you will be very troubled by it. And so I imagine not thinking and learning and loving and opening that you can do. God is with us. If we let God in, if we go where God can be for us, but has never been before the spiritual life is not the withdrawal from life. It's the love of life. And the complete commitment to the notion that in this darkness, God is my light.
Joan Chittister (34:55):
God, don't get me through this. That's what God is. God is my support. God is my companion. God is my beacon. God is my light. God is not making up problems for me. God is not punishing me with cancer. God is there to companion me through all those things. God, isn't throwing barriers in front of every step. I take those barriers are on that road because that road throws up barriers, but God will help me through it. God will help me fix it. God created for me, every single thing I need to get through life and is present with me whether I know it or not. And so I can certainly with some fear, certainly with a lot of hesitation, I can take that next step because I have left certainties and gone to the need for faith at this period in my life, faith. And I believe that God is with me calling me on and will get me there. However many times I fall. That's my spirituality.
Ryan Dunn (36:17):
That's a benediction right there. I think that we have been challenged to go out and meet the world and God's presence within it. So sister, Joan, thank you so much for offering that witness to us and for spending this time with us really appreciate it.