As a prophet and wisdom teacher, Jesus frequently challenged the status quo and employed witty, paradoxical, and sometimes often shockingly hyperbolic statements to counter conventional wisdom with the alternative wisdom of the kingdom of God, particularly on matters related to holiness/purity, reputation/honor, wealth/possessions, power/position, and inner motivation.
In her new book, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life, Benedictine Joan Chittister, while letting go of the shockingly hyperbolic features of Jesus’ method of teaching, beautifully employs the medium of paradox to share spiritual truth from the storehouse of perennial wisdom. The titles of her chapters convey the essence of the paradoxes she explores. Some examples:
The Poverty of Plenty (chap. 8)
The Success of Failure (chap. 10)
The Productivity of Rest and Recreation (chap. 12)
The Sanity of Irrationality (chap. 16)
The Liberation of Loss (chap. 19)
You get the idea.
This book is grounded in the deep, practical truths and insights of the wisdom tradition, particularly as that tradition was embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus, even though the Gospels are never quoted and Jesus is only rarely referenced. It’s clear that Chittister is immersed in that tradition, though she seems to speak out of her own “inner authority.”
In this regard her admonitions and exhortations echo the Pauline pattern. Paul only rarely in his letters made direct reference to the life and teachings of Jesus, though it is quite obvious that the wisdom tradition of Jesus informed and shaped his ethical and spiritual instruction. The same can be said for the rich spiritual and practical wisdom filling the pages of this book.
A few of my favorite passages:
The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to reenter the human race, to take part in it knowing that is as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us. It requires us to understand that misfortune is not failure. It is at most simply a digression through life intended to make us reassess our course, our goals, our aspirations. (p. 131)
Differences bring us out of ourselves into a newer, fuller way of being human. We see other models of family life and begin to reexamine our own in light of them. We begin to recognize likenesses among us that enlarge our understanding of what it means to be human beings. Finally, we begin to realize in blazing new ways that no particular people have a monopoly on goodness or a corner on criminal character, an option on God or an ascendancy on godlessness. . . . Until we step out into the large world around us, go out of our way to meet, befriend, engage with the unknown, we will remain forever the half of ourselves we are now. But if we move toward even one person who is our opposite, go to one country where our stereotypes have made us blind and begin to see the other as like us, the other country as a symphony of new soul, our own spirit will grow. (p. 148-49)
We are all looking everywhere for paths to the Unknown and, interestingly enough, discovering our common questions, evaluating our unique answers to them and beginning to imagine God from other perspectives. Of all the things we share, the most central, is not in the liturgical or theological or canonical dimensions of the religion. It is in the realm of our personal search and experience of God. (p. 156)
This last passage is a good example of the optimism and hope that pervades her entire work.
One never gets the sense that Sister Chittister stands above the reader as a superior. She is not pontificating. She speaks as a comrade and companion on the journey. She shares her own experience. For example, she writes:
And yet, this noise in me is the voice of the Spirit calling me to attend what I have long ignored or denied or forgotten. It is the challenge to face up to the unfinished business of my life. To resolve what I regret. To confront whatever it is that is blocking my ability to live a life free of consternation, alive with joy. (p. 125)
These are the words of a friend and partner sharing spiritual wisdom.
While Chittister is staunchly rooted in ancient Benedictine spirituality with its emphasis on intimacy with God, stability, and community, she is able to bring this to bear on the enormous challenges, obstacles, questions, and dilemmas faced by contemporary pilgrims.
This is no out-dated manual for the spiritual life. It is a powerful, modern proclamation of the potential and possibilities for present day seekers for living a wise, good, compassionate, just, balanced life in communion with God and humanity.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective.