Sister Joan Chittister opens her latest book with the story of Abba Zosimas, a fifth-century monk in Palestine.
Abba Zosimas taught his followers, “The soul has as many masters as it has passions.”
Chittister wants her readers to look “gently, kindly but clearly” at those masters and passions in their lives, she said.
For the popular activist and author, freedom from those things comes from living out the 12 degrees of humility found in the Rule of St. Benedict, which guides her life as a Benedictine nun. And they’re just as applicable today as they were 1,500 years ago, as she explains in Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, which was published April 25 by Convergent.
“The one phrase that I’ve come to in my own life is these 12 degrees of humility are a veritable program of liberation,” she said.
Chittister talked to RNS about how St. Benedict of Nursia’s words about humility apply to a culture of self-promotion on social media, what role wisdom has amid fake news and alternative facts and where she sees religious life going in the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book goes through the 12 degrees of humility in St. Benedict’s Rule, and yet the subtitle isn’t “12 Ways to Live a Humble Life.” It’s “12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life.” Why?
Humility is authenticity. It comes from the (Latin) word humus, meaning “earth.” As the church has taught, we’re made of dust, and unto dust we shall return.
The God who made us dust knows we’re dust. We don’t have to feel like perpetual failures because we aren’t more than we are, and we don’t have to be in contest and contention with everybody around us, because once I know myself and realize I have limitations, then two things happen: I realize my need for you, and I do not expect more from you than I expect from myself. So mercy comes with it, joy comes with it, authenticity comes with it and freedom comes with it.
You write that the quest for a free and authentic life is common to everyone in every generation and era. How do you think the Internet has contributed to this, or does it?
It has contributed to certainly a new kind of communication among us — not all of it good; a lot of it, dangerous. When we talk about human community, we certainly now have a tool in our hands that enables us to reach out as we never have before. It broadens our sense certainly of what community is and even of our own place in it.
When I get on the Internet and hide behind a false identity and then allow that hiding to free me from the standards of decency to begin to use language I would never use in front of my mother, all of a sudden, there’s nothing between me and you, but worse than that, there’s nothing between me and my worst self.
So is this an instrument of community? Yes, it is, but it depends on the kind of person I am when I come to it, and that’s where the 12 degrees of humility are absolutely essential. They create a windowpane through which I see the world, but in that windowpane, I also get a reflection of myself and the way I’m seeing the world and interacting with it.
You encourage readers to seek wisdom, rather than facts. In a culture of alternative facts and fake news, what does this look like?
I have to be honest with you, it never occurred to me as years went by that my country would look like this as I grew into it and as it grew into a different world. That’s why I keep pressing the notion that we must seek wisdom.
We must ask ourselves, “What is wisdom?” It is the synthesized truth of life. Let me put it this way: If I’m nine years old and get my first bike, my parents say to me, “Do not ride this bike on gravel.” What’s the very first thing I do? I ride that bike on gravel. When I come in at night, my face is scratched and my shirt is cut, my elbow is broken open and everybody at my kitchen table knows exactly what I’ve done.
There are two facts here: I was told not to. Second fact is I did it anyway. What is wisdom? Wisdom is what I learned from doing it, from misrepresenting this fact by refusing to accept the obvious reality of this fact. I now have a new piece of wisdom: my parents were right. Older people know things I don’t know yet. Experience teaches me different things. That’s wisdom.
Also in the book, you note how slow your own evolution was on the role of women in the church. Are you seeing movement on this in the church?
The movement is simply that, all of a sudden, most of the world and certainly most of the church at least understands two things: women are indeed human human beings, fully human human beings with everything that implies. Whatever anybody else can be, do, want, desire, contribute to, women likewise, as full human beings, have a role and a place in that. The second thing is that, in the present time, we also know that the women’s agenda is not going to go away. The whole world is being run by half of our resources. The human race sees with one eye, the male eye; hears with one ear, the male ear; and thinks with one half the human mind, the male mind. And the decisions we are making show we are not bringing to the agendas and the questions and the problems of the world all the resources of the world to solve them.
Will we have a break? Yes, it will happen. Has Pope Francis contributed to that? Yes, this pope has. He has very clearly, for instance, created a commission to examine the return — the restoration — of the female diaconate for women in the church, but, more than that, the equality of women is not about ordination. It’s about humanity.
Now, it doesn’t mean any of us — starting with me — can just sit back and assume it is going to happen. Some people want to go back to a nice 1950 social system where women are some kind of domestic servants and men run the world. I repeat: that is a deficient body of resources. That’s not enough to solve our problems. We need the intelligence, the spirituality and the creativity of the entire human race to deal with human problems.
This book is rooted in the Rule and religious life. What do you see as the future of religious life in America?
It’s not going to go away. It will take a different form. Why am I so sure it’s not going to go away? Because there are people whose personalities and gifts and interests and soul are simply immersed in living this kind of a spiritual lifestyle. That only makes sense. If you can live an artistic lifestyle, why can’t somebody live a spiritual lifestyle? We’ve always, in every single great tradition, had a percentage of the population that stands in the middle of us being the beacon that calls us to realize that the spiritual life is an essential part of every life.