My long-time friend and colleague, Tom Roberts, delivered the inaugural lecture April 30 in the Joan D. Chittister Lecture Series at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.
The lecture was held in conjunction with the opening of the Helen Boyle Memorial Archive in honor of Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and a prolific author and NCR columnist, who has written extensively on spirituality and religious life.
The archive space at Mercyhurst and the lecture series have been endowed by the Boyle Family in honor of Helen Loebelenz Boyle, a 1934 graduate of Mercyhurst and a longtime friend of Chittister, who graduated from the university in 1962.
Mercyhurst is partnering with Penn State University and the Erie Benedictine Community to preserve Chittister’s literary archives.
The Boyle Memorial Archive, on the fourth floor of Mercyhrst’s Hammermill Library, now features a 70-inch interactive touch screen that visitors can use to learn about Chittister. The display features her life in pictures, her vita, her blogs, links to associated websites, videos and summaries of a selection of her books. The space also includes a computers researchers can use to access her complete collections of more than 50 books, and countless, articles videos of persentations and more.
Chittister earned a master’s degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate from Penn State. She was prioress of of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie from 1978 – 1990 and current is executive director of Benetvision, a research and resource center for contemporary spirituality.
Roberts, editor at large for National Catholic Reporter is working on a biography of Chittister. His lecture was titled, “Sacred Uncertainties: A Journey with Sr. Joan Chittister.”
Text of his lecture follows:
I first met Sr. Joan Chittister in 1997 while covering a story for National Catholic Reporter. It was a symposium in Pittsburgh put on by New Ways Ministry, a group dedicated to issues of gay and lesbian Catholics. She was there to give a keynote address. It was clearly not the place to be as a high-profile Catholic writer and speaker if the intent was polishing the resume to get ahead in the institution.
Then, as now, of course, polishing the resume wasn’t Joan’s intent. Her resume hardly needs polishing. And if advancement in the institution was her goal, it might be the only thing at which she was really lousy.
Resumes, however, do tell some of the story, so allow me a brief and partial recitation of the record:
Her major publications include more than 50 books. Honors and awards go for nearly two pages, single spaced. They include 12 honorary doctorates as well as her own, actual, hard-earned doctorate in Speech-Communication Theory from nearby Pennsylvania State University.
In the world of women religious, she was elected early to leadership positions, first as president of the Federation of St. Scholastica in 1971; President of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses in 1974; President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1976; and prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie in 1978, a tenure that lasted until 1990. She has lectured at conferences and special appearances throughout the country and she’s still scheduled out more than a year in advance. Her international travels as lecturer, participant in symposia, activist for women’s causes and for peace as well as a chronicler of events have taken her to more than 30 countries, some of them repeatedly over decades – from the former Soviet Union to South Africa, from the Philippines to India, from the whole of Western Europe to Haiti and parts of South America.
She continues to produce a book a year, major talks for the lecture circuit, columns regularly for the National Catholic Reporter, and she makes appearances on television and radio here and abroad.
She has refused to even consider my request that she slow down for just a few months so I can catch up.
Sr. Joan is often, as the Pittsburgh event points up, at the intersection of forces and ideas that don’t normally cross paths and often where you just don’t expect to find a contemplative nun.
The last time I was in the field with Sr. Joan I was, quite literally, in the field, bunking in a safari tent pitched in a meadow of a game preserve in Northern Kenya.
My tent mates were a swami from Southern California and a former Jesuit brother cum Buddhist who arrived at the gathering wearing flip-flops, the same ones he had worn at the start of his trip when he walked from Cambodia to the airport in Thailand.
The scene was, if nothing else, illustrative of the span of humanity that Sr. Joan can inspire to seek common cause.
We were three among many -- meditators and chatterers, people of every political stripe, Palestinian, Israeli, Buddhist monk, Buddhist nun, the Baptist preacher peacemaker from Rwanda, the Vietnamese international care worker, the Muslim woman who establishes schools in Afghanistan, the African Catholic sister draped in a habit printed with the dates of an earlier visit to her country by Pope John Paul II.
Tribal chiefs and holy men and women from Africa, India, Japan, Afghanistan, Australia nd several countries in Europe. People had come from every corner of the world for the 10th anniversary of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, which Joan had helped found.
This gathering on an African plain drew from the deepest wells of belief that had nurtured faith for thousands of years in circumstances around the globe; it stretched the imagination regarding God and how God relates to us. It made dramatically (and at times frighteningly) clear that if the human project is to come to its fulfilment in any of those various traditions, the first step is realizing that we were all knit together – we to one another, to the earth and all it provides. If a stitch is broken, we all weaken.
This wasn’t cheap grace or syncretism. It was the monastery opening to the world, encountering the other, as Pope Francis might put it, not to convert, as he has also put it, but to walk with and to understand.
The images from both places – among faithful if marginalized gay Catholics seeking their place in the church and among the world’s religions in a place where one couldn’t claim a position of superiority -- are significant in substance and symbol.
They both demonstrated practical application of what Sr. Joan has preached for years -- that transformation of the world does not occur by avoiding the world, its complexities and the difficult questions that arise in contending with all of that.
Transformation occurs, instead, when we rub up against that reality outside the safety of our walls and sanctuaries and demonstrate an alternative way to live.
A thick texture of truths and interlocking realities are borne out by the life of Sr. Joan. Three of them I think are essential in any era and acutely needed in our age:
First, we traffic in dangerous delusion when we think we’ve got God figured out.
Second, Faith (and its religious expression) is not a matter of absolute certainty at every step. It is quite the opposite. If a faith doesn’t tolerate questions, it fails of its own weight or becomes dangerously distorted.
Third, the integrity of any organization, religious or otherwise, is seriously diminished if in practice it ignores, demeans or subjugates half of humanity.
To point one, consider the times. Preachers of many stripes love to rail about the corrosive effects of secularism and how godless U.S. culture is these days. And I would venture to say they are correct, but not in the way many of them would acknowledge.
Secular as we may be, there is more God and religion in our public squares these days than ever before. God is everywhere, blessing all we do – our economics, our political system, our military adventures. We sing “God Bless America” at our sporting events, our civic leaders God bless us at every turn and risk failing our informal but very binding religious test if they don’t.
We love to call ourselves God fearing, and many insist that we stand atop two centuries of firmly established Christian practice as a nation.
The truth is, religion has been spread wide and thin, a veneer that serves to hide flaws and inconsistencies. In the attempt to pretty things up and provide all the answers, we are forced to fashion a god in our image, small and controllable, a commodity packaged for mass marketing. We live in an age of expanding religion and a shrinking God. Our religion itself is often as corrosive of true and authentic faith as any other secular influence.
Sr. Joan would like to rattle those certainties, and the conclusions we derive from them, AND the certainty, as well, that God is a man and that he wants only men around him.
None of us comes to our ideas about God in a vacuum. Even those of us who had to memorize all the answers in the Baltimore Catechism eventually had to use our imaginations. Our experience of authority, of men and women and religious leaders and our institutions’ interpretations all mix together over time to produce notions of God.
In Sr. Joan’s case, that would have included an exceptionally challenging childhood lived out in devotion to a mother who sought the best for her while at the same time subjecting her to the kind of flinching uncertainty that came with a violent and alcoholic stepfather.
Joan loved them both, her mother with a fervor that later turned to motivation in a lifelong advocacy for women; him in the skittish way one proceeds when exposed to the kind of relationship that presents itself as protective one moment and the next willing to destroy every bit of domestic tranquility at the slightest provocation.
Sr. Joan, however, would also bring to her imagination about God the long experience in a community of women, women who brought to the effort all manner of human ambition and flaws, courage and fear, gifts and grace. One can’t tell the story of Sr. Joan apart from the story of the Erie Benedictines. For it was among them where she ultimately found the possibilities of love without trauma, acceptance without fear of retribution.
The story also cannot be told without understanding that Sr. Joan Chittister arrived at this project – religious life and the Erie Benedictines – as a bedrock conservative. She bought the whole package back then – habits, veils, that era’s version of obedience, the sister as low-paid help to an all-male clerical culture -- and this woman, later labeled “dissenter” on so many occasions, was reluctant and slower than others in the community to rise to challenge the status quo.
Ah, but when she did. When, with the help and even insistence of the community, she went beyond the monastery’s borders, when she began to make the connections between her work in the academy, her life in religious community and her lifelong experience as a woman—that’s when the scales fell.
And what about God?
Well, in a manner of speaking, God changed, and -- God knows -- that would not be the last time someone changed having been confronted with the thinking of Joan Chittister.
In all of the material I’ve read, her talk titled “The God They Never Told Me About: A Convergence of Opposites,” is one of my favorites because, like a reduction rendered long and over low heat, this is essential Joan Chittister, a distillation of thought which first appeared in earlier works and refined over years. Had she not wrestled with and come to some conclusions about God, I daresay, we probably would not have seen all the rest that flowed from her life.
Along the path of her evolving ideas of God, she discarded “God the persecutor who created life in order to trap us in our own ignorance,” as well as “God the mighty male … to whom obedience, subservience and deference were the only proper response for a woman.” She came to the conclusion that she had been looking for God in all the wrong places, “that a divinity such as these is simply a graven image of ourselves, that such a deity is not a God big enough to believe in.”
“I learned that law keeping did not satisfy my need for meaning … I learned that fear of wrath did not seduce me to love. I learned that God the distant doer of unpredictable and arbitrary magic failed to engage my soul, let alone enlighten it. I learned that life was surely about far more important things than walking around in a darkened funhouse, sometimes bumping into the God who does good things, and sometimes the God who does bad.”
She “abandoned God the stern father who had no time for human nonsense and little time for women … God the cloud sitter who keeps count of our childish stumblings toward spiritual adulthood in order to exact fierce retribution from humans for being human.”
All of those Gods, she became convinced, “do not exist, never did exist, must not exist if God is really God.”
“I have become sure,” she writes, “that if all I know about God is that my God is the fullness of life and the consummation of hope, the light on the way and the light at the end, I will live my life in the consciousness of God and goodness everywhere. Obscure at times? Yes, but never wholly lacking. Now God, at this stage of life, that old rascal, is doing it again. I am moving in my heart from God as a trophy to be won or a master, however benign, to be pacified, to God as cosmic unity and everlasting light.”
One doesn’t move through those levels of understanding and arrive at the immensity of God as cosmic unity and everlasting a light, a personal God who need not be modeled on our limited ideas of personhood, without questioning ancient certainties and long-held presumptions about God.
“When it is at its best,” she writes in her book, In Search of Belief, “religion offers more than a list of answers designed to resolve the unanswerable; it tenders a way to deal with the questions that plague our lives and puzzle our hearts.”
She has made the transition, she says, from “faithful answers to faithful questions.”
“When I pray, I still say ‘I believe,’” she writes, “ but the truth is that I now believe both a great deal less and a great deal more than I did years ago.”
For Sr. Joan, faith came to mean more than a tick list of orthodoxies, more than dogmatic precision or the markers for Catholic identity by which some think that all will know, without question, who’s in and who’s out. Moving from certainty to faith is part of an evolution in the Catholic world that has been underway for most of our lifetimes and I believe we can see it occurring at every level of the community, from the bricks and mortar that once defined us to the outer world to the change of heart by which we, in the community, understand who we are.
In recent years I’ve had the opportunity to spend time hopping around parishes in different areas of the United States and recording much of what I saw and heard. I did the same but for a far shorter period in Australia. I came away from all of that with an understanding that the Irish/European Catholic project of the past 150 years, as it was expressed in these two English-speaking countries, was coming to an end. Not that the church was coming to an end, but that project, so endowed with certitude, proudly established with grand churches, baronial residences for its bishops and cardinals, with its parochial structures so dependent on rectories full of priests and convents bulging with sisters willing to work for a pittance -- all of that was going away.
I tried my takeaway on a distinguished church historian at Boston College, and he didn’t even wait for me to get the whole sentence out of my mouth. “Not coming to an end,” he said. “It’s over.”
Complicated reasons having to do with everything from sex abuse and money scandals to demographic shifts and the priest shortage are behind the diminishment we’re witnessing in those old iconic sees of the northeast and upper Midwest. But at the bottom of it all is the realization that the old model no longer works. No less a traditional figure than Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has to concede the point. In a book length interview, People of Hope, he paints a less than hopeful picture when he says:
“I’m developing a theory that one of our major challenges today is that American Catholic leadership is being strangled by trying to maintain the behemoth of institutional Catholicism that we inherited from the 1940s and ‘50s.”
When the cardinal archbishop of New York feels strangled by institutional Catholicism, you know that something momentous is underway.
That may sound new, but if you know anything about the good sisters, then you know that they knew all of this a long time ago. Joan wrote powerfully of these matters in her 1995 book, The Fire in These Ashes. When much of the male church was exhausting itself trying to find out how to sustain the status quo (and much of it still is) against all odds and contrary to clear empirical evidence; when they were insisting that this model was God-ordained and could not be tampered with, the sisters were quietly doing the work asked of them by the Second Vatican Council.
They were deeply searching their histories, exploring their founding documents and re-discovering why their communities were established. Individual women and their communities went through a period of introspection and discovery, and they came out on the other side understanding themselves quite differently from before. They understood, often long before the rest, that a church based on the model of a royal court, a model drawn from the example of kings and princes, didn’t have much chance of standing up to the example of the suffering Servant.
That’s why they were out on the margins – among the poor, transforming some of the worst sections of our cities, tending to immigrants, teaching them everything from language to new work skills, in solidarity with women, single mothers, hungry and abandoned children – long before Pope Francis came along and made it unmistakably clear that that’s precisely where the church should be headed. [You in Erie have witnessed such work in abundance.]
We know, through the horrible story of the clergy sex abuse crisis, that often the primary instinct within the clerical culture was neither introspective in a healthy sense nor outward in concern for the most vulnerable in the community. It was, instead, an instinct of self preservation.
In times of turmoil, we often turn to metaphors out of the natural world. Today it feels at times as if the ground is shifting constantly beneath the church, shaking all of the old foundations.
The old symbols of power are disappearing, the very edifices that once defined us are being sold off, the credibility of our leaders is compromised in ways we could not have imagined as young Catholics not that many decades ago.
It is worth mentioning here that an element of institutional Catholicism of the 40s and 50s that is disappearing along with episcopal mansions is an endless supply of women religious. I would warn against accepting the argument that the nuns have gone all secular and that’s why their numbers are down. And, correspondingly, that the cause of women religious will be rescued by the conservative orders whose numbers are skyrocketing.
During one of my visits here I interviewed Sr. Phyllis Weaver, an elderly member of the community whose enthusiasm is still infectious. The next morning I went to chapel with the community and afterwards Sr. Phyllis came tooling up in her electrically powered chair and said she had a thought overnight about something she’d forgotten to tell me, and maybe I’d be interested. “In 1941, when I entered the community,” she said, “there were 100 in the community and no postulants. Today,” she continued, “we have 100 members and one postulant.”
What was her conclusion from that bit of information? Maybe we’re too worried about numbers, she said.
I went to Joan with that information and, in her big-voice way, she said, “Sheesh Tom! I’ve been saying that for years!” Turns out that she had researched the matter during her time as prioress and discovered that between some point in the 1800s and the early 1940s the average intake for the community was one and a half people a year.
Indeed, Catholic demographers here and in Australia had almost identical information and the same caution: Stop thinking of the 40s to mid 60s as normative. They weren’t. That time was, for a host of reasons, an aberration, with far more priests and nuns than either country had seen before, and more than they’ll ever see again.
As for the hope that some see in the newer orders, the demographers again, primary among them those at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, issue a warning: Some of those groups are experiencing increases. But they are tiny to begin with, so any increase in membership is going to be huge. There are still far more women, for instance, choosing to join what are often referred to as the mainstream religious orders. However, they make far less difference percentage wise and they are far fewer today than 50 or 60 years ago. I firmly believe that both models have a great deal to offer the church in different circumstances and in different eras. But I would also assert that an essential truth of this era is: Don’t bet the future on a 1940s and ‘50s style revival of religious life.
One of my favorite lines about statistics might also apply: They’re like a bikini. What’s revealed is suggestive, what’s hidden is vital.
In the introduction to her book, Religious Life at the Crossroads, Sr. Amy Hereford, citing Ecclesiastes and the life cycles of institutions, says of the diminishment religious orders are experiencing today: “they are not giving up, but they are letting go of ministries and of many works and institutions they have served admirably for a century or more. They know the time is right for this; it is not defeat but rather the completion of an impressive chapter in the history of religious life. It is not the denial of the dream but affirmation that the dream is fulfilled. It is not dying; it is really living.”
New forms of life are being worked out; some are well underway here and elsewhere. Oblates and Monasteries of the Heart immediately come to mind.
But all of the downsizing and rearrangement and rethinking of things make for an unsettling time.
Several questions arise that will be key to what happens in the church of the future.
Will the institution deal with women as equals or continue to push back, saying that their questions cannot even be raised and that no changes can occur in our sacramental thinking or our traditions?
Is our Christic imagination, as one author recently expressed it, large enough to accommodate such new questions and concerns?
Are we able to imagine a new future or are we forever stuck trying to recreate, like old war re-enactors, a past that is actually but a tiny slice of time?
Xavier Le Pichon, a French geophysicist and ardent Catholic is known for constructing a comprehensive model of plate tectonics and for extracting from his knowledge of the activity of the earth’s plates deep insights into human behavior. In an essay he writes that he has come to understand that it is “the weaknesses, the imperfections, faults [that] facilitate the evolution of a system. A system which is too perfect is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature.”
I think it can also be inferred that his insight holds true as well for the Catholic Church and its ecclesiology.
A perfect system, writes Le Pichon, “is a closed system that can only evolve through a major commotion; the evolution occurs through revolutions.”
As evolution can occur in the natural world through the cracking of rigid rocks, in the church, one might extrapolate, it is occurring through the slow crumbling of ecclesial systems and traditions that have become too rigid or that discover their usefulness has been overrun by time, circumstance and new insights.
Is it possible – and it is way too early in his pontificate to know for certain – but is it possible that Francis’s instructions to go make a mess, to cause a commotion, to not be afraid of making mistakes, are intended to aid and abet the evolution underway?
Some years ago a dear uncle of mine wrote a brief history of the Roberts family and at the end of one section included a list of my grandmother’s favorite sayings. She was a peasant from Italy’s Eastern coast, an uneducated, barely literate farm hand from Abruzzi when she arrived here at the turn of the last century. She died in 1961, I am certain hardly aware of a growing women’s movement. But topping her list of sayings was this:
“La ragione della femmina se l’ha mangiata l’asino,” which my uncle translated: “Women’s rights have been eaten by the donkey.” I think he was using a polite translation for that last word.
It’s just a single anecdote, but one might make the case that an awareness exists deep in the fiber of women’s beings – their own kind of ontological difference, if you will – that understands history and the world in a way unfamiliar to what has been a dominant understanding of history for too long. Male privilege, like white privilege, is difficult to discern on one’s own. It’s the water we swim in and the air we breathe. It takes someone outside that condition to point it out.
A few months ago, my wife and I went to an exhibit of photographs in Washington DC. They were done by women working for National Geographic Magazine. The locations of the shoots ranged from the gentle surf of the Jersey shore to some of the most dangerous and remote corners of the world. The exhibit drove home for me how far our story telling about women has lagged behind our story telling about titans, war makers and empire builders.
The photographs announced the other side of history, from the mundane to the exotic. Increasingly, from a variety of media, we are made aware of how toxic the waters of male privilege can be: From those who are still sold into slavery in the sex trade to young women burned and disfigured for going to school; girls as young as 6 married off to men many times their age with no say in the matter and facing horrible trauma as children. Among the most common victims of our wars and other national ambitions are the women left with starving children, in horrible refugee camps, risking lives in search for food and water and firewood. Women, of course, are the targets of one of modern war’s least technological but most destructive weapons – rape, used on an unimaginable scale.
Those photos and the list of stories I mentioned took on a new poignancy because I had been immersed in understanding Joan Chittister and her advocacy for women.
The narratives of some of the photographs and so many recent news reports represent so many torn stitches, and we all are, as a result, weaker for it.
Against the backdrop of these realizations, this person of Joan Chittister, whom even I had referred to from time to time as a dissenter, became something quite other. Wasn’t it she, after all, who was both coherent and consistent? In all of these circumstances, including the church, her basic point is that women are locked out of so many of the decision-making circles. Their voices simply are not heard, their perspectives not considered.
At the end of his Passion Sunday homily this year, Pope Francis asked us to consider the question: “Am I like those leaders who went the next day to Pilate and said, “Look, this man said that he was going to rise again. We cannot let another fraud take place!” and who block life, who block the tomb, in order to maintain doctrine, lest life come forth??”
That is a profound question and a striking use of the image. At the same time, it invites a turning of that question on the male clerical culture itself. Is a defense of a God, imagined primarily by men, for men and their ambitions, to be used in service of an all-male culture, perhaps blocking life to preserve not even doctrine, but a tradition?
I feel compelled to make a point here.
I am not anti-hierarchy or anti-male clergy. Priests have played an influential role in my life. I rather have come to conclude that a healthy hierarchy, leadership however that is construed, has to include more than celibate males. We have reached, I believe, a kind of ecclesial Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus moment. It portends nothing but trouble should men in leadership continue down the path of simply not allowing women anywhere near the decision-making councils of the church. It makes no sense and it isn’t at all healthy.
In her book Called to Question, Joan writes of women’s situation: “I think that is the real lesson of this period: If you want to be treated as a full human being, an adult, a peer you must claim it for yourself and let them all deal with it later.”
Which is pretty much what she did in 2001, when she was threatened with expulsion from her order and worse if she went ahead with a planned speech at a conference in Ireland on women’s ordination.
There is a dramatic moment Joan described for me and that Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, who was prioress when the scene occurred, confirmed. Christine had called Joan, saying she needed to see her.
From the transcript of my interview with Joan:
When I get there, I sit down on the couch and she sits about there.
She said, “I got this letter.”
I said, “Oh.”
She hands it to me. I see the Vatican stamp on it. I open it up and I start to read it. I’ve heard in other books that this has happened to people. Up to that moment in my adult life, it had never happened to me. I had known fear as a child that was physical, but I was long past that one, and I doubled over. I had literally been kicked in the stomach.
I stayed over like this for 10 or 15 seconds, and I sat up and said:
“Christine, before there’s any discussion, before we say a single word, there’s something I need to tell you.”
She said, “Yes?”
I said, “I’m going to Dublin.”
She said, “I thought you’d say that.”
I said, “I’m going. These men are not going to do this. They have no right.”
Joan continued in the interview:
This was not a women’s issue to me. This was a justice issue that happened to be rooted in the women’s question. It was a matter of who do you think you are that you can tell me what to think, tell me to whom I may speak, tell me where I can or cannot go? Who do you think you are, Daddy? I’m a big, grown up girl and I can go into this myself and trust me, I will maintain my faith and I will be a member of the Church.
That doesn’t make me a moral infant or an immoral woman, and if we have to shoot this out in the street, we’re going to because I’m going. I am going.
She went and gave a talk -- NOT on women’s ordination but about discipleship, and there was considerable more drama around the event. It included a unanimous show of solidarity from the community here and an investigation by an archbishop and a sister, who essentially ended up finding nothing amiss with Joan’s writing or the activities of the Erie Benedictines.
So perhaps it all ends well. And a little more than a year into a different papacy, we are experiencing a kinder, gentler church. Still, it isn’t bishops who have utterly failed to protect children, who have continued to protect abusive priests, including a bishop convicted of a count of endangering children, who are disciplined.
They remain in office or go quietly into retirement.
It is the sisters who are investigated, and priests who dare encourage the ordination of women are the ones defrocked and banished from the clerical culture.
In my most optimistic – even hopeful – moments I tend to see these glaring inconsistencies and hypocrisies as signs of the weaknesses in the brittle crust of the ecclesial landscape. It is along these fault lines that the eruptions, already underway in the manner of a super slow motion implosion, will continue.
In the meantime, Joan herself has provided, with her life, a template for staying the course, and in her writing, a rationale for doing so.
In what I am told is the most requested piece of writing out of the zillion or so words she has put to paper or computer screen -- an essay titled “Why I Stay” -- she describes membership in the Catholic community as a process. The journey itself is more important than the destination, she writes.
It is abundantly apparent that Joan knows the church’s inconsistencies, the deficiency of its theology of ordination that excludes women, she knows the leaders who “ignore the women who are in their churches waiting to hear themselves imaged in the God who made us ‘in God’s own image’ both male and female.”
She also knows the Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, betrayed by the very place he loved; the Jesus contesting with the Pharisees; the Jesus presiding over Seder “true to the end to the truths of the scripture which insist, in our time, too, that before it’s all over, however much evil we encounter on the way – the presence of God shall prevail.”
“I have no model of Jesus the triumphant,” she writes, “only of Jesus the faithful and God the present one.”
She stays in this church, “a restless pilgrim, not because I don’t believe what the church has taught me, but precisely because I do. … I believed in the Jesus they showed me … who listened to women and taught theology to women and sent women to teach theology to the apostles and even raised women from the dead.”
“And I also stay in the church because there is nowhere else I know that satisfies in me what the church itself teaches us to seek – a sacramental life that makes all life sacred.”
What you are doing here these days, Mercyhurst and greater Erie, is extremely important. For you represent an important step in preserving that other side of history that too often has gone lost, a side of history that, again in my hopeful moments and they are many, I see in the ascendancy.
Joan recently was asked to give a talk in an unusual setting – a gathering of archivists. Why, she asked herself, would they want to hear from me and what do they expect to hear?
But this is, first and last, a woman formed by deep traditions and she recalled some Benedictine history: That Benedictine monasteries – men’s and women’s – became “the sole civic anchor and agricultural organizer of peasant populations from one end of Europe to the other” from the second through 13th centuries. Those monasteries, centers of art and education, it is widely held, saved European culture itself. Yet when women’s monasteries went out of existence because of marauding bands or sheer poverty, not one of their archives was saved.
“So despite the fact that their lives and works were exactly like the male communities we have all been taught to revere,” she told the archivists, “an entire subculture of women was simply allowed to vanish from human sight and thought: their experiences ignored, their wisdom demeaned, their contributions buried with them.”
You are to be congratulated, Mercyhurst and Erie, for not allowing that to happen here, for not shunning or dismissing the prophets in your midst, but for embracing them.
How important that years from now, anyone, but especially young women, will have access to the archive you’ve just opened. They’ll be able to look in on the life of this most unlikely prophet from this city on a northern edge of the country. In Joan’s story a certain symmetry exists, one might suggest, with our sacred texts – out of relative obscurity emerges a powerful and essential witness. In that vein, one might also imagine this Joan Chittister, certainly not one to block life for the sake of doctrine, in that long ago, going out, fearless and curious, ahead of her brother disciples, and running that early Sunday morning to the tomb, determined to roll away the rock -- and finding that life, indeed, had already won.
[Tom Fox is NCR publisher and director of Global Sisters Report. He can be found on Twitter at NCRTomFox.]