A Spiritual Heart Transplant: An Interview with Joan Chittister, OSB

by EEWC Update Editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26, NRSV).

Sister Joan Chittister is the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie, PA and has established an international reputation as an author and lecturer as well. Her latest book, published this spring, is entitled Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men.

When I asked how she happened to tie a book on feminist spirituality to the passage from Ezekiel quoted above, her reply was quick and passionate: “I’ve always consciously felt that this development of the human heart (which in Western constructs always means feeling) is what is lacking in a highly technological and very legalistic society.”

Sister Joan Chittister, OSBShe explained that she had been struck by the passage when she was a young Sister. It showed her that “you could have all the law and all morality on your side and be missing the dimension that we most ascribe to God — heart. Compassion. Forgiveness. Sensitivity. Sensibility. Care.”

She believes, for instance, that the presence or absence of these qualities has made all the difference in various periods of American history. “You find when the heart is in full gear that people do best. But when the heart of flesh is not what is underlying policy-making — whether in a family or in a government — then you have great suffering.”

Joan is convinced that “the feminist dimension, the new world view, will be the view of the world seen through the human heart.” This is what she means when she calls feminism “the cornerstone of spirituality.” She hastens to distinguish between “feminism” and “femininity” and also makes clear that “feminists come in two genders — female and male.”

“I do believe that feminism is a new world view,” she told me. “I have been maintaining for years that feminism is the radical justice issue. Now you have to understand,” she continued, “that I myself came into all this through (a) the purpose and function of religious life, and (b) the peace movement.”

She says that when she got into the peace movement and was trying to understand how it was that we “could live in a world where 6 million people could be exterminated and nobody noticed, where we ourselves could do carpet bombing of Dresden and think we had done a good thing, then experiment with two different bombs in two different cities when we knew Japan wanted to surrender,” she asked herself, “What kind of a people are we? Are we human?” At the time, she was reading Teilhard de Chardin and began questioning whether we had “really evolved to any full state of humanity.”

“I was trying to put all these things together,” she says, “and sometime in the mid-to-late ’70s, I came to understand that there was only one thing that justified this kind of violence and continued oppression. And that had to be the notion that God had built inequality into the human race.”

It had to be the misinterpretation of the creation stories in Genesis. Otherwise, she maintains, we would surely have had a moral problem, generation after generation, with the destruction of people. “We know that some people are in charge of the rest of the people, and they know who they are. So if you believe that God built inequality into the human race, then in my opinion you are a very short step from the lynching of black people, the nuclear destruction or napalming of Asian people, and the gassing of the next generation of Jews. When you take that subversion of Genesis and you add to it Darwin’s survival of the fittest, then we know who’s ‘fittest.’ It’s not women. And it’s not nonwhites. So then I had this phenomenal Eureka moment that was tragic. It almost broke my heart.”

She then embarked on a study of the creation myths or origin stories from other religions and found that “in every case, creation began with a divine co-equal couple, or a hermaphroditic being who gave birth to both males and females, or some act of divine power that spawned a male and a female figure for the propagation of the race. Equality was in every creation myth. It was only when we got to the religious application of those stories that you began to see the distortion,” she said. “All equality was lost; women were subjected to the heel of the men and the creation story itself was distorted.”

She went on: “And that’s when I began to say, ‘feminism is the radical meaning, the justice issue at the root of all justice issues.’ Until you deal with feminism, you will not have peace; people will not be safe; and you will have some type of new slavery colonialism, industrial slavery. You will have a hierarchy of control and people thinking that they not only have a right to control but a responsibility to do it. Look at the history of religion. Look how each of us claimed full truth, the total truth, and the right to impose that truth on everybody else. And it’s all in the name of God!

“That’s why you see me involved in those three issues: the peace movement, the women’s movement, and the ecology movement. I have developed a new presentation at Cambridge that I call ‘Theology, Ecology, and Feminism: In Conjunction or in Conflict?’ And what I do is braid these three pieces and show they are one.”

Joan Chittister loves to look for connections and put ideas together. Her voice rings with power and passion as she says, “I mean it when I say new world view.” She puts her own heart of flesh into implementing the message of her latest book. “It’s not a book; it’s a life commitment,” she emphasizes. She says she thanks God that she is a writer because otherwise she doesn’t know how she “would get it out of [her] system.”

And what a writer she is! One of the major bookstores on the Internet lists 5 pages of titles of Joan’s books and audio tapes. She has also authored articles too numerous to mention. (She holds a doctorate in speech communication theory from Penn State.)

She traces her love of writing to her earliest days. An only child, she entertained herself by writing about her adventures with five imaginary brothers. In high school, she worked diligently on the school newspaper. She says she found it impossible not to write.

One of the most poignant and disturbing of the anecdotes with which she opens each chapter of Heart of Flesh recounts her daily keeping of a journal after she entered the convent. She recorded her thoughts about the spiritual life, her reactions to monastic living, and her observations on the structures that formed and maintained the life of the community. She worked on the journal every night and every morning and then tucked it into a corner of her tiny desk “the only private place a novice had, except for a three-drawer clothes stand by the bed.” She writes in her book: “I knew, somehow, that someday I would look back on this work as a treasure house of idea development, a map of my own spiritual development.”

But one day the journal was missing. She suspected that behind its mysterious disappearance was the rigid novice mistress who scrutinized the young women so closely, demanding unquestioning conformity and obedience and never hesitating to punish. “Her role, she thought, was to turn us all into what the male world said were good nuns,” Joan wrote in that chapter, which she aptly titled “The Patriarchal Woman: Internalized Oppression.” Joan watched the woman closely to see any hint of her having taken the journal, but she saw no sign that the novice mistress had even known about the journal. Over the next five years, Joan did not put down on paper any further personal thoughts; she bottled up her reflections inside.

But on the night before her final profession, the novice mistress sent word that she wanted to see Joan by the elevator. Here is what happened as Joan describes it in Heart of Flesh (p. 152):

It was a strange request. We had hardly seen one another in years and never ever talked about anything when we did. Night Silence had, in fact, already begun. No one talks about anything to anyone after night prayer in a monastery. Nevertheless, she was indeed waiting for me, elevator at the ready, when I came to the hall. Silently and solemnly she took me to the basement, then to the boiler room, and finally to the incinerator. “Open it,” she whispered, as she brought something out from under her apron. I recognized it instantly. My journal. “Here,” she said as I swung open the top of the flaming furnace. “I think you ought to burn this now. You don’t want to do this kind of thing anymore.” 

But why not? I thought as I threw the journal slowly and reluctantly into the fire. To this day, I can see the flames curling around those pages still. The only difference is that now I know the answer to the question. *

I asked Joan what thoughts went through her mind as she watched the journal burn. Calling the incident “obscene,” she replied, “The funny thing is, Letha, it’s harder for me to deal with as I get older than it was when I was younger.” She paused. “I wanted to jump into that fire after that book.” Her voice grew soft and sad and she spoke slowly and emphatically, with a clear separation between each word: “I wanted that book. Even at that age I had the perception — maybe the insight to know — that there would come a time when the reflections of that young, young woman on this strange new world around her would have its own spiritual value–and it was taken away from me. . .

“You knew that in this very hierarchical, patriarchal structure you were not a person–that anybody could reach in at anytime, do anything to you–and that was all in the name of holiness. And I wanted to be holy with all my heart. . . .I knew there was something wrong. I had been raised a very independent child — by a mother and father who raised my sights as high as they could go, especially my mother. It was the inside of me being taken away. Every private thought I had had now been destroyed. I never will forget it.

“And I never wrote again. I did not write for years. I never wrote another personal word. When everybody else began to journal, when journalling became very popular, I didn’t journal. To this day, I don’t journal daily. I will journal major events in my life. [Her book Beyond Beijing is a personal chronicle of her trip from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Helsinki to the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.] But I don’t do a daily journal.”

She is determined that no one is going to take those private thoughts away from her again. She will not risk it. I mentioned that she has nevertheless stored them in her heart and is now sharing them with the world through her books. She laughed. “That’s right! They come out sideways!” I replied, “Yes, but they do come out. And we, the readers, are the beneficiaries.”

 

 *  Excerpt copyright 1998 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. Quoted by permission

© 1998 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, Spring, 1998, Vol. 22, No. 1.

 

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Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

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