Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir

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Topics: Spiritual Exploration & Practice. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    Joan Chittister, OSB, is Executive Director of Revision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, Erie, Pennsylvania, and an internationally known author and lecturer. Her book began as a journal which soon became a compilation of quotations from spiritual writers of multiple traditions and her “dialogue with the idea of the day as I saw it in my own life at that particular moment.” She discovered from this experience, during a period of four years, that six issues of the spiritual life emerged in her own life and they are the focus of her memoir. She describes her book as an examination of “ the multiple threads that make up the lifelong warp and woof of the spiritual experience. It gives no set of rules. It describes no mystic secrets. It guarantees no certain system of spiritual advancement. It simply looks at all the dimensions of life as we live it today and asks what, if anything, is holy-making about any of it?

    She lays a foundation for her exploration by speaking of the journey from religion to spirituality. She believes that religion, at its best, enables us to find meaning and purpose in life. At its worst, religion is institutionally centered, focused on belief, dogma, laws, and answers. She suggests that “Religion, the finger pointing at the moon, is not the moon.” The moon is spirituality which is “the hunger in the human heart” seeking “immersion in God.” She writes, “The very purpose of religion is to enable us to step off into the uncharted emptiness that is spiritual life, freely but not untethered.”

    She then proceeds to share her experience of the inward life which led her to believe that the basic truth of the spiritual life is mysticism. She describes mystics as “people in whom the living God is a living reality, independent of denomination, irrespective of the brand of scriptures that underpin it.” Mysticism involves a quest, leading beyond the traditional images of God “to the essence, to the mystery, to the spirit.” She highlights dimensions of prayer, which include “insight, solitude, commitment, balance, and darkness, all ways of becoming aware, of seeing the world as God sees it, and putting on a “heart of justice, love, and of compassion for others.”

    The other side of the inwardness of mysticism is “immersion in life.” Pointing out that there are streams of the spiritual life that result in escape from the world, she stresses that we live in a web of human relationships and that without “immersion” in them we can never understand the love of God. She explores friendship as a “holy thing.” She writes, “To love the other without letting go of the self, to honor the fulness of the self without losing sight of the other, that is the sacrament of friendship.” Pointing out that the spiritual tradition of the Western world stresses obedience to authority as a virtue, she tells of her experience and other novices of her order, deciding that obedience was not their ideal. They sought wisdom, “that deep down divining rod of goodness that did not fail in the face of either authority of license.”

    Extending the circle of relationships from the personal to society, she emphasizes that, in contrast to a common understanding of the spiritual life as a withdrawal from reality seeking “perfect peace,” there is “a spirituality of resistance” which engages issues of power and justice in society. She believes that such engagement is an imperative of the Gospel. She writes that such engagement “makes all the difference between seeking the Kingdom of God and seeking spiritual self-satisfaction.” She also devotes a section to feminist spirituality as a “distinct way of seeing the world” which closes the “gap between the powerful and the powerless,” so that both men and women can experience fullness of life. She writes, “Clearly, our degree of commitment to the emergence of feminist spirituality marks the quality of our spiritual lives.”

    Widening the circle of the spiritual life, she regards ecology as “the other side of the spiritual life.” Decrying our tendency to separate nature and spirit, “as if there weren’t a spirit in nature, as in our own natural selves,” she reminds us that God comes to us in nature because God is the Creator. This truth not only motivates us to care for the environment and its inhabitants, but, she suggests, that “Getting back in touch with nature may be the only real cure for the agitated soul.”

    The final issue she explores is “dailiness.” repeating the same tasks everyday at home or in the office or on the road and dealing with frustration, discouragement, sadness, rejection, loss and suffering. She stresses that dailiness is “the treasure house of all our yesterdays and the reserve out of which we draw strength for all our to-morrows.” It is the treasure house that can help us when we search for God in the darkness and when we celebrate our love of life “more than we love loving our pain.”

    Reminding us that growth in the spiritual life is a “slow, circuitous route to the God within” she writes, “But those who grow in the spiritual life know that spirituality begins where answers and pictures stop. The spiritual life is seeded in darkness and ends in light. It is about love, not law; it is about grace and energy, the cosmos and creation. It is about hope at the edge of despair and a beginning where only an end seems to be.”

    In her spiritual memoir, Joan Chittister has shared her questions, explorations, reflections and wisdom. To read her book is an enlightening, strengthening and hopeful experience.

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