Joan Chittister, one of America’s leading spiritual voices, is currently co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a UN-sponsored organization creating a world-wide network of women peacemakers. A Benedictine nun who has authored over 50 books and lectures internationally, Joan writes and speaks on women in the church and society, human rights, peace and justice, religious life and spirituality. I first heard of her 25 years ago when three feminist-minded Catholic women friends of mine who were also mothers of girls (total of 10) and myself (4) began meeting regularly to support each other as we struggled to reconcile the irreconcilable: being members of a blatantly sexist church. I ultimately left the Catholic Church, feeling more at home in the Episcopal, where women could be ordained, but my Catholic roots are strong and valued, and I continued reading books and articles by Catholic spiritual leaders whose work resonated for me.
First there was Fordham University’s Sister of St. Joseph, Kathleen Johnson’s book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, which my friends and I were introduced to by a liberal-minded nun who joined our group for a period of time. Then there were books by Matthew Fox, originally a Dominican priest and theologian who became a member of the Episcopal Church after he was dismissed from the Dominican order by the Vatican in 1993. My favorite of his well-loved books is Original Blessing. And my favorites of Joan Chittister’s are The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century and The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, with a star next to The Gift of Years. It’s beautiful and true and nourishing for those of us who are in our 60’s and beyond. I’ve recommended it to friends from time to time and also checked out Joan’s website sporadically www.joanchittister.org hoping that she might be giving a retreat that would interest me, but have had no luck at all with that idea. Until recently.
There was an announcement on her website not long ago that she’d be giving a Readers Retreat in October and that because registration for her retreats generally fills immediately, this time they’d hold a lottery. What can I say? I asked Peter if he’d be interested, and he surprised me with a “yes.” I filled out the form online, and we found out Friday that we made it! We got into the retreat, and it’s the weekend of my birthday. Happy Birthday to me!
When I look back over similar past experiences – attending President Carter’s Sunday School class for my 50th birthday for instance – I can see that there’s always something life-giving in a personal encounter with an extraordinary person and certainly, I know that the written word can be life-giving as well. I wonder who the other folks are who will be attending the retreat with us, and what will get stirred up in our experiences of the weekend together. For now it’s all a mystery, an adventure that we’re open to, and in a sense it’s already begun. But don’t let me stop without telling you, I’m really looking forward to meeting Joan Chittister. Ever since I learned that in 2001 the Vatican forbade her to speak on discipleship at a women’s ordination conference in Ireland and she spoke anyway, I figured she was my kind of gal. And then in 2007 we had the opportunity of attending the first Emory Summit on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (www.dalailama.emory.edu )which featured His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in conversation with religious leaders from the Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith traditions. During this powerful summit which examined whether, as we witness an escalation of global violence invoking religion, the religions of the world can work together to reduce violent conflict and build peaceful pluralistic societies, His Holiness shared how Sister Joan Chittister’s words penetrated his consciousness, leaving him with a new awareness that perhaps the role of women in the Buddhist faith needed to change. I almost hate to share that because there were many layers of dynamics and important people and issues within this conference, but my point is this: Joan Chittister is a powerful woman. Her power emanates from the truth in her words and wisdom distilled from a life of many years of fidelity to her vocation, and I’m pleased to know that I’ll get to experience her.