I first met Joan Chittister a decade ago. I'd heard many entertaining and admiring stories about Sr. Joan's passion and intelligence and wit. She would scribble notes for her next book or column during board meetings, people told me, and occasionally look up to deliver a line that recapped and energized the entire conversation.
Always on the go, she had squeezed me into her schedule during a three-hour layover at Chicago Midway airport. She was, I wrote in my notes, "a whirlwind in purple." Several times she whisked out a miniature dictaphone and recorded questions and reminders for herself and her assistant. She'd published four books already that year alone. And she was as fun as she was formidable. "I've never missed a party," she told me, "and I don't like to be left out of one." If I possessed any lingering stereotypes about nuns, I left them forever behind in that airport lounge.
For some, the words that describe Joan Chittister might seem to be a contradiction in terms: Roman Catholic monastic, interfaith social activist, feminist. But I understand Joan Chittister to be at one and the same time engaged with worldly reality and with the sense of paradox often found at the heart of religion. She is a modern woman who draws her sustenance and vision from immersion in a 1500-year-old monastic tradition.
She is a committed member of a small Benedictine community in Erie, Pennsylvania and a global activist. She is an influential, sometimes uncomfortable voice in her beloved Roman Catholic Church — a hero to some, a heretic to others. She is guided in all of this, she says, by her vow of obedience.
We talk about that vow in this program and how her understanding of religious virtue has evolved in response to changes in the church and the world. In the pre-Vatican II church by the mid-1960s, she says, "obedience" had come to be synonymous with conformity. But at some point for her and others, she says, this gave way to "a sensitivity to the impulses of grace in our lives." For Joan Chittister, this has included responsiveness to other faiths.
She is known for the Sufi Muslim parables by which she often drives home a Christian point in her speeches and writings. She co-chairs a global consortium of religious women and spiritual leaders — Protestant, Hindu, Catholic, and Buddhist. For Joan Chittister, such partnership represents a deepening, not a refutation, of Catholic theology. If God is one as Christianity asserts, she asks, why are we surprised that different religious people can think and work as one on matters of justice and poverty and the human spirit?
We are living in a crossover time, Sr. Joan declares. We are at a moment in history when every structure and institution is in flux and up for grabs — religious, political, marital. The old answers don't work as they once did, and the new answers have yet to be discerned. People are searching within and beyond spiritual traditions — reading books, seeking new community, and perhaps even listening to public radio with a new ear — as they pursue answers that make sense in the context of their lives.
Joan Chittister, I think, is a public figure for this crossover time — articulating the questions and holding them up boldly. We will not all agree with all of her ideas. But in consonance and dissonance with other bold voices and ideas, she is helping to energize our most important discussions and move them forward.