Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
Joan Chittister writes with clarity and purpose as we read this meaningful work. This is a book that makes sense to people living a contemplative life that by its nature is fulfilling. What she presents to us is a gift of who she is and what she believes. She refers to the Sacred heart. She says that “In every beating heart is a silent undercurrent that calls each of us to a place unknown, to the vision of a wiser life.” She offers a way of living and seeing life that brings deep human satisfaction. Sister Joan calls all of us to cultivate the spiritual seeker within even in the midst of the diversity we experience. It is only the depth of the spiritual well in us that can save us from the fear of our own frailty.
This book carries the weight and wisdom of the monastic spiritual tradition into the twenty-first century. She leans into St. Benedict, who, as a young man in the sixth century, sought moral integrity in the face of an empire not by conquering or overpowering its forces but by simply living an ordinary life extraordinarily well. This same monastic mindset can help us grow in wisdom, equanimity, and strength of soul as we seek restoration and renewal both at home and in the world.
Sr. Joan states: “I am writing this book at a time when the country and the world have just witnessed the frailty of contemporary social and, at the same, the endurance of the human spirit. Shaken off our social foundations by a global calamity, an invisible virus we could not see coming, we each found ourselves at the end of certainty and the beginning of faith. Where do we go now as individuals to find our way out of the shadows and toward a new light?” She goes on to suggest: “The challenge is to determine what is being asked of the human spirit when the pressures of the time seem insoluble and our inherent energy begins to fray. What internal resources can we rely on then if we are ever to become the fullness of ourselves again. It is time to remember what it means to go on when going on is all we can do. It’s time to discover what it takes to nourish the vein of tenacity that change requires as it reshapes the systems around us and to face having to cultivate a future we did not seek or imagine.”
In every beating heart is a silent undercurrent that calls each of us to the more of ourselves. Like a magnet it draws a person to a place unknown, to the vision of a wiser life, to the desire to become what I feel I must be but cannot name. The truth is that this deeper part of everyone does not simply develop in us like wild grass. It needs to be cultivated, to be cherished, and to be sustained. Clearly, the satisfactions of social success or unassailable serenity or even the trappings of control are not the acme of the good life. It is the spirit of monasticism that not only keeps it alive but keeps it changing changelessly. Monasticism is driven by the spirit of tradition and the spirit of community. Monasticism is also driven by the spirit of reflection. Monastics live in a commonwealth of Gospel, personal pondering, and search for the presence and will of God for the world. Monasticism is a way of life that rests on the consideration of life as it is and life as the will of God wants it to be, the fullness of life for all life, for all peoples at all times. Monasticism is driven by the spirit of personal growth and development. The function of the spiritual life is not the debasement of people under the guise of false humility. On the contrary. The more developed the individual monastics, the more developed the community itself.
Monasticism is also driven by the spirit of service. Monastery doors are open to everyone only when the monastic heart is open as well. It is our service to one another and the world that changes life for better or for worse for everyone we touch. Monasticism is driven by the spirit of transcendence. The spirit of transcendence is the awareness that life on this earth is meant to be heaven all the way to heaven. It is the ability to remember that the clay of this world is our first step on the way to its afterlife resolution. It is the clear and firm consciousness that this is not all of life but only the beginning of coming to see that the face of God, the touch of God, the will of God, and the presence of God already surrounds us, prods us on, calls us to the rest of ourselves, to all of creation, to life as its best both here and hereafter. Each of the chapters is filled with reflections on monasticism that are readable and welcoming as well as challenging. Sr. Joan writes with clarity and purpose as she draws us into contemplation of the monastic life, its meaning and purpose.