In the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of shutdowns, the politicization of vaccines, and increasing attention paid to the nation’s violent acts of racism against Black people, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister published The Monastic Heart (Penguin Random House), a book on the monastic life, the Rule of St. Benedict, and how people of all ages, family structures, and social locations can start living a contemplative life.
It at first seems like a little bit of a contradiction: Our current age calls for more action and engagement, not for a retreat from the world. How can a 1,500-year-old Rule contain wisdom for our current times? “The Rule is not tied to any century, but to the development of the Christian soul in community,” Chittister says. And, as such, it remains applicable throughout history, just as relevant to a religious sister in the 16th century as it is to a busy parent today. And, when the rest of the world seems topsy-turvy at best and apocalyptic at worst, Benedictine contemplation offers resources to keep going, to keep working to create a better future, and to maintain your own relationship with God.
Chittister writes in the introduction to her book, “To live a mature spiritual life requires that we choose the values that will ground our hearts, stretch our vision, and give new energy to our hopes.” And we can best do this through contemplation—through listening to that small still voice inside ourselves. For it is there that we find God.
What is monasticism?
There are all sorts of ways to define monasticism. It’s a lifestyle. It is contemplative. It is devoted to peace and the development of people. But there is only one thing in the Roman Catholic Church older than monasticism, and that is the church itself.
Monasticism is how the tradition of religious orders began. The first monks went into the desert during about the late second century, and monks were there until the fifth or sixth century. Unlike Benedictine monastics, however, they did not necessarily live in community. So what the Benedictine tradition brings to the church is this model of Christian community that is deeply alive and contemplatively immersed in scriptures.
The Rule of St. Benedict is over 1,500 years old now. And Benedictine communities are still using the same book as they did 15 centuries ago: It’s about 5 inches high and 4 inches across and has 73 very, very short chapters in it. It has gone without editing for 1,500 years. Why? Because it works. It is not tied to any century, but to the development of the Christian soul in community.
Some people think of Benedictines as people who go to a monastery to escape life, but in fact it is exactly the opposite. Benedictine monasteries have been at the center of serving people for over 1,500 years.
Where do you think people got the idea that contemplative life is something that happens only behind monastery walls?
It occurred to me somewhere along the line that the problem lies in language. We have made synonyms out of the words contemplative and cloister, but they’re not. If they were, then what do we do with Jesus—the contemplative of all contemplatives? We’d have to say to him, “The cloister grill is right over there.” No, to be contemplative is to wrestle with God about the meaning of your life. It’s regular and it’s constant and it’s common. And, for us Benedictines, it is communal.
Chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict is on humility: know thyself, grow and learn from everybody around you, and then go out to other people to see what you can do for their needs. And this isn’t just communal, it’s familial. We live together in the same place all our lives, because stability exposes you to yourself. Benedict didn’t want people running in and out of different religious houses—he wanted stability. He said, “You learn here from one another. You learn here from these scriptures and these psalms.” Little by little this leaven begins to rise in you, and you’re the same, but you’re not.
Over time, the meaning of scriptures drips into a person’s soul and their whole life changes and reshapes how they see the world. Contemplative life is not some sort of religious prison where people can’t do anything. Contemplatives do everything.
The other part of this has to do with women. You never think of a male Benedictine as being locked up behind 30-foot doors with the bishop holding the key. But that is what people think of when they see Benedictine women, especially in Europe where their monasteries are hundreds of years old. (What we call our grandmother house Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, was founded in the the early 700s by St. Rupert. It is the longest currently open abbey in Austria and is led by its 93rd abbess.)
But when the church imposed celibacy on men in the late 16th century, guess who they had to control next? There was this unspoken God-awful message that now you have to lock women up, because the male vocation is so fragile it can’t be trusted around women. This was when they imposed cloister on Benedictine women. This broke down, obviously, over the centuries, but it lasted a long time.
But cloister is not the essence of Benedictinism. There are some small communities of men who have chosen over the centuries to be cloistered, but they are few and far between. There is also a great respect for hermits, but Benedict doesn’t want you to be a hermit, until, he says, you have spent a long period of your life in a monastery—then maybe you’ll be ready to be a hermit. It was something you worked toward in life, but you didn’t sign up and say you’d be a hermit.
Why has Benedictine monasticism lasted so long?
There’s a very obvious answer: Because it’s so simple. Benedictinism is not a life script, it’s a lifestyle. We always say, “The function of the Benedictine is to learn to live the ordinary life extraordinarily well.” We do what we do, and we do it with the same degree of concern, regularity, and simplicity that any spiritually mature person knows is basic to a holy life.
There’s a passage in the Rule that reads like Benedict was mid-thought, as if someone interrupted him while he was writing. He says, “Oh, about the dress, tell the abbot they should wear whatever is common to the people.” He is basically saying, “I’m not going to fool around with dress. I don’t have a uniform in mind. Tell the abbot to use their head—if they’re in Norway, they should probably wear wool. If they’re in the Caribbean, maybe cotton.”
In other words, he didn’t make toys out of the religious life. He said, “The people who want to take me seriously, those are the people I want. They will build a new world. They will see things differently.” And we do.
I’ll give you a good local example. In the 1970s and ’80s, there was a great nuclear fever in the United States. They were building nuclear weapons and bombs, and my community in Erie, Pennsylvania was trying to have some part in dampening that terrible determination. We got a man to make huge wooden signs that said “nuclear free zone” and we hung them on every building we owned in the city of Erie.
Through these signs, we said, “Nuclear proliferation is for your protection. Don’t protect us. We don’t want to be protected by nuclear bombs.” It was such a simple but stark difference in the way we saw the world. And that is the basic developmental dimension of the spiritual life.
If you are not seeing the world differently from other people, something’s been missed. You’re not there yet. To be Benedictine is to be independent and powerful enough to stand in the middle of Main Street and say, “Do not protect us with your nuclear bombs.”
In The Monastic Heart, you write that our current moment in history is a time that calls for monasticism. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Well, for example, silence is a large part of Benedictinism. In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal writes something like, “All problems derive from those people who cannot sit alone in a quiet room by themselves.” We seldom give ourselves the opportunity and the freedom to think about ourselves and what’s going on in our lives right now.
Try this exercise: After you read this interview, don’t just go to your colleagues or housemates and say, “Anybody want to go out for coffee? I was just reading this and didn’t realize how hungry I was.” If you can, go back to your office or room, close the door, and listen to what you are saying to yourself inside. Maybe one part of your head is saying, “My God, I was reading this when I had a thousand other things to do.” But the other part says, “That interview was very interesting. Why am I struck by it?” Take the time to sit and think about anything that struck you and jot it down on a piece of paper. Ask yourself: Did I learn anything? Is there anything in here I didn’t believe? What do I think about it?
This is the kind of practice that Benedictines bring to a period of chaos. And this is the period in which we find ourselves: If you turn on your television, you’ll be in a state of anxiety for the rest of the day. If you are a thinking Christian, you have to be asking yourself, “What are we going to do? Where is the leadership that will get us out of this?”
We’re all standing on a brink, but how many of us are sitting down to talk about what our insides are saying to us?
What does monasticism look like within the context of family life or for those of us who aren’t called to vowed religious life?
There’s a line in the Rule of Benedict that says, “Let everyone in the monastery be given a task.” Now, I entered at 16, and when I first read that line, I said, “My God, what is wrong with these people? They’re crazy. What about the elderly and sick, don’t they give them a chance to just relax?”
The years went by, and we kept reading the same silly page. And every year I began to find something happening inside of me. Who were the people doing the dishes? The older sisters. Who were the people running the trays? The middle-aged sisters. Who were the ones who were driving other sisters back and forth to town? The young people. And then there was the very elderly sister who opened the mail and distributed it. She took her time. And if I knew I was getting a letter, I wanted it then.
I realized 10 years later that’s what Benedictine stability and perseverance are all about. Eventually you’ll learn patience, if you stay here long enough. That soul of yours will be worth taking to other people. You can learn a similar lesson within a family.
One of the things that comes up in your book is about how contemplation is affected by the physical space around you. How can we all work to create this sacred space in our own lives?
A Benedictine is a person who sees God everywhere. God the creator is God the great artist. And so you should be surrounded by beauty.
Benedictine monasteries have some of the most beautiful pieces of art hanging on the wall. They are reminders and slivers of the face of God. As long as that’s what I’m seeing, I have to be living the good life.
If you see today’s rain and know there will be new flowers out tomorrow, and you will find them, you will know the face of God. You will see the face of God in other people, and you will see it in their art. And I will see the face of God in those experiencing homelessness, in children, in the garden. I’ll see it everywhere. That is the beginning of a truly contemplative life.
If we all used contemplation and monasticism to guide our personal and spiritual lives, what would that look like?
If we as a human race evolved to the point where we had a spiritual equilibrium, we would come to realize that the God who created this life considers this a step back to God. Life’s a circle. We grow into part of the circle, and then we grow into another part. You can’t force it, and you can’t speed it up. It can only go at your pace.
This morning, I made the mistake of turning on the news, and I felt like somebody was cutting off my air. I just sat on the couch for 20 minutes. I felt a sense of helplessness—like I could see too many things happening around me but couldn’t do anything about them. And then, after a while, I said to myself, “There is no prayer here big enough except for surrender and trust.” Whatever mess is going on, we have to keep our heads. We have to state our truth. We have to be able to say outright, “No, this is wrong. This has to stop.”
Benedictine spirtuality is built on a moment. It lives on from century to century because it always lives in the moment: Benedictines do not live in the past. They draw from the past: We have 1,500 years of saints and monasteries and public and civic achievements, and we honor that. They remind us to shape up—if this is what Benedictines did in the 13th century, what are we doing in this century? Our immersion in the present is our search for God who is the present for all of us.
Do you have any suggestions for how people can start to become more contemplative or better listen to God?
My favorite spiritual well is the psalms. The psalmists were the executive editors of their time. Every psalm shows either gratitude, fear and uncertainty, or the search for God. There is the same constant ring in our own hearts.
I really believe that the simplicity of Benedictinism is a powerful thing. And that’s why it lasts. It says, “We will not lie to you. We will try to help one another through. We will listen to our sisters and our brothers and find a spiritual path that might bring some new wholeness here.”
Just keep in your mind that Benedictine spirtuality is for the moment. So, in the moment ask yourself: What is the holy thing for me to do now? What am I able to do at this moment for this person, about this idea, with that hope? I will find my way if I am plotting it a moment at a time and have the community around me.
You have a community. You have to build that community and learn from one another. You gain strength by being part of the body of strong, good, loving people that are standing up saying, “Not over my dead body. Never. I will never accept any kind of heartless degradation.”
This article also appears in the March 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 3, pages 32-35). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Joan Chittister