by Wilma van der Leek
“If we’re not spiritual where we are and as we are, we’re not spiritual at all.” I like this idea very much in Joan Chittister’s book. The simplicity of it makes me surprised all over again that Christian spirituality for goodness sake ever came up with the idea that a spiritual life is somehow separated from an embodied one. (And can we really blame this bad idea on the Greeks as Christian theologians always seem to do?) Whatever the reason, we do need to keep remembering this and teaching each other for it’s really the sanest piece of wisdom around that the life you actually have is the only and the best path to the transformation and salvation you really want.
Of all the main monastic ideas touched on in this little book –listening, prayer, humility, work, hospitality etc.- it was the fact of the author’s constant drawing on the Rule of St. Benedict that most drew me. She is convinced that RB has as much to offer our modern alienation and chaos and waste and freneticism and anxiety as it did in earlier eras. I felt I’d really like to read and absorb that document as she has done and experience it for myself. The impulse behind monasticism has been very intriguing to me for quite a few years, and now I feel I’d like to actually pick up that document and see why it has been so life-giving for so long.
Another great pull the book had on me was its periodic discussions of lectio divina. I haven’t been “eating” the Bible too much lately, except as I chew over what has, over time, become embedded in me. But there was a definite attraction to all the mention made of lectio, and a sense that I want to take up this practice again, perhaps with others. Too often learning about lectio replaces doing it and I felt convinced with Doherty that “to pray only when we feel like it, is to seek consolation rather than risk conversion.” (p.30)
Finally, I was drawn to all the book’s discussion about change and transformation. The slowness yet realness of my own changing makes lines like “face reality and unwilled change will happen… (p.53) jump out. There was a big recognition for me about reality a few months ago, but now there is the on-going working out of that recognition and even the new acceptance and taking up of the cross daily. Maybe that’s why the connection made by Chittister between transformation and community was very powerful to me. “The most valiant monk is the one who has learned to live with others.” (p.40) In other words, my life as wife and mother sanctifies me, especially as one for whom perfection had become a fatiguing impulse.
Chittister was very good to read, but Doherty really opened me up. Poustinia does kind of stream out of her, not in any intellectually rational way, but quite as the book’s jacket advertises, as “a life force.” This is so amazing, I thought. How can anyone know this much? Wait, I know some of this. Oh no, not much. Well a little. This life is so attractive, it’s so scary, so impossible and entirely reachable at the same time. Why is it taking me so long to read this book? What’s the appeal?
Perhaps it’s this: that as I’m reading the book, I’m mostly sitting in the literal poustinia or desert place of my own back yard, staring for long periods of time into space, listening to God within me, wondering if I’ll ever “fold the wings of my intellect” long enough to get even close to the wise and safe place Doherty reached, and at the same time wondering if I’ll ever open up the wings of my life again and go anywhere except this back yard.
The book’s teaching on the radical practice of poustinia, going away into a desert place or secret room where God rewards us with himself and makes our hearts like Christ’s, soft and gentle and compassionate to the world and ourselves…some of this is actually happening to me but the book’s many warnings against temptations and missteps in that place….well,I feel them almost daily too. All the teaching about dark nights of the soul and desert places doesn’t prepare you for the feeling of being in one: you just don’t know what’s going to happen next and there is regular despair, doubt.
For who really knows if what you’re in is a depression or a fruitful dark place. At first, I was drawn to Doherty’s mention of practicing poustinia “on behalf of others” but then mainly rejected that for myself as yet another activist, face-saving way to give some credence to the passivity and inaction of this period of my life. How little I am accomplishing! How little I need to be concerned about this….
Lots of tears while I read. What I cried about while reading the book:
Mention of tears: they’ve been given to me, oh my, but with them a need to discern where they’re coming from. Not all are soft and compassionate and purifying.
Mention of lectio: this again! “Wait for God to come and explain these words, which he inevitably will when he finds such deep faith.”
Anything about receiving….
Anything about the intellect, its potentials, its limits.
Mention of community, of human beings choosing to live with “new and awesome openness between each other where fears of revealing weakneses are overcome.” (p.79) Excitement and yet despair that I will ever find that kind of community….or wait Wilma…what about Kevin and Cindy and Marie and Albert and…??
Anything about facing reality and the slow process that can be. Especially that even after facing something big, as I’ve done, there is good teaching here that there still will be a period of being torn between knowing ourselves and denying that knowledge: “a very deep martyrdom.” But oh the pull of what lies ahead, no more emotional camouflage and great “at-homeness” with our sins. I think this is something I’m still quite essentially confused about: wishing for revelation to result in a more immediate transformation instead of the slowness of the process being itself the vehicle for that change. That it’snot about being perfect but accepting oneself.
I feel after reading these two books that reading spiritual texts like these is an enormous blessing for me, a natural avenue for me to grow more peacefully in God. Books like these unsettle me and ground me at the same time. And they remind me that one thing I can know and name with certainty is that to the nectar of strange and winsome little books, I am a bee drawn to nectar. Back to Chittister: Who I am and as I am…