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Books

08/26/2015
OUR HOLY YEARNINGS: Life Lessons for Becoming our Truest Selves by Joan Chittister. Toronto, Novalis, ©2014. 104 pages, hardcover, $14.95. Reviewed by Edwin Buettner.

Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun whose work as a writer and speaker is widely known. In this little book, Chittister continues to offer her literary talents in the service of exploring the deeper truths of human life. Her reflections are organized into nine chapters, each dealing with a familiar spiritual theme. Included are topics such as: perfection, joy, humility, and “luminous darkness.” Though such areas are likely to be familiar to readers who seek spiritual nourishment, Chittister develops them with refreshing originality, akin to distributing gold coins upon well-trodden paths.

The structure of the chapters may be compared to that of an elegant meal. The “appetizer” is a short quotation taken from a variety of wisdom sources, ranging from popular culture (Gilda Radner) to Eastern spirituality (Lao Tzu, Confucius) to the western literary world (William Blake) and to modern Science (Carl Sagan). The “main course” delves deeply and broadly into the chapter’s topic. For example, in Humility, Chittister draws upon a Special Olympics athlete’s poster that conveys not “a sign of triumph over others,” but rather a heartfelt celebration of personal achievement. By contrast, modern society is infected with what the author calls a “social virus” that demands “achievement and power, control and celebrity” of those who participate in sports. As a consequence, successful athletes are driven to embody the “pathological pride” of North American culture.

Then comes the dessert platter laden with a wide selection of pithy nuggets of wisdom, to be savoured one at a time. Some examples from the Humility chapter are: “Humility frees us from the burden of perfection,” “Education is the seedbed of humility,” and “Natural gifts are made to be given, cannot be denied, and are the deepest kind of humility.”

In reading Chittister, one is treated to a remarkable confluence of form and substance. When a pointed observation is made, her sentences are short and strong: “Beware the temptation to find yourself perfect.” However, in reflecting upon more ineffable notions such as the transcendence of God, Chittister’s prose takes on a more imaginative and poetic tone: “But in the end, as the soul matures, it is the yearning itself for Everything, for the Fullness of Life, that saves us.” Taken together, Chittister’s writing is like a beating heart: a rhythm and flow that is responsive to the demands of the text.

Our Holy Yearnings may be seen as an example of effective evangelization for this day and age. Chittister speaks with a voice that is never preachy; rather, she encourages the reader to enter into the deeper caverns of the soul and so discover the divine indwelling. In other words, her approach is to awaken what is universally present in humanity, what some have called “the Christ within.” Grounded in a fine-tuned awareness of the realities of today’s world, Chittister communicates with a high degree of authenticity and clarity, announcing the gospel to a spiritually hungry humanity.