Contrast, Stature, and Having a Fat Soul: Reflections on Joan Chittister’s Between the Dark and the Daylight

Contrast, Stature, and Having a Fat Soul: Reflections on Joan Chittister’s Between the Dark and the Daylight February 15, 2015

BC_BetweentheDarkandtheDaylight_1Joan Chittister’s Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life is a hymn to spiritual stature. In a world that excludes and polarizes otherness, including the otherness in ourselves, Chittister argues that wholeness involves embracing the contradictions of life. A good life involves consciously embracing the totality of our experience, even the shadows and tensions of life. Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and so can we. Jesus’ uniqueness came through his hospitality toward others and himself; his willingness to face the dark side of his culture and himself. Surely some of his breadth of soul emerged through his facing of his temptations in the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry.

One of my graduate school professors, Bernard Loomer spoke of human growth in terms of “Size.” According to Loomer: “By S-I-Z-E, I mean the capacity of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature.”

Life is filled with polarities, but a growing self is willing to embrace these as part of what it means to be fully human. Indeed, in the spirit of the early Christian theologian Irenaeus, the glory of God is someone fully alive, and that means fully open to life in it all of its diversity. Only persons of size, or stature, people who can embrace “the contradictions of life,” can provide the way forward for our congregations, communities, country, and planet.

In our global world, we need stature more than ever. Yet we promote alienation, polarization, and untruth about our neighbors, whether they are Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, or the President of the United States. We are in danger of losing our national soul as a result of our unwillingness to embrace, albeit critically, the wide diversity of peoples and experiences.

My colleague, theologian and author Patricia Adams Farmer, speaks of having a fat soul as essential to being fully alive. Her Fat Soul Philosophy seeks the beauty of contrast, rather than the drabness of homogeneity. It embraces the contradictions of life. According to Farmer, “A beautiful soul is a large soul, one that can overcome the smallness and pettiness of our human condition. A really fat soul can welcome diverse people, ideas, and ways of being in the world without feeling threatened. A fat soul experiences the intensity of life in its fullness, even the painful side of life, and knows there is something still bigger . . .”

To seek size, stature, and contradiction in our personal and communal life requires courage: “The truth is that we are small and flawed and fear things that we don’t understand. But we can embrace even that, can’t we? We can love and accept ourselves even in our limitations—for we are not, in reality, human beings, but rather human becomings. And we can become bigger, even if just a little bit.”
In the spirit of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, Farmer sees dynamic beauty as the gift of his life-transforming way of life: “Beauty is all about intensity of feeling, the kind that emerges from mutual relationships of respect and reverence and tenderness. Beauty thrives on contrasts and differences for sake of intense harmonies—and that, after all, is what makes the world go round.”

Chittister’s work, along with Farmer’s and Loomer’s, is an antidote to the cramped spirituality and politics that is destroying the church, alienating seekers, and fracturing our nation. Let us have compassionate souls, big enough to embrace life in all its diversity and challenge. Facing the contradictions of life can become the pathway to beauty of experience for us and our communities.

(For more on theologies of stature, see Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed and Patricia Adams Farmer, The Metaphor Maker, Embracing a Beautiful God, and Fat Soul Fridays.)

Read an excerpt – and more – from Joan Chittester’s new book Between the Dark and the Daylight at the Patheos Book Club.

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