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Posted November 9, 2004

Book: Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir
Author: Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B.
Sheed & Ward, Chicago, IL, pp.232

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

“Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir” is Sr. Joan Chittister’s most personal and intense writing to date. Centered around a series of conversations with spiritual writers featured in her private journal, Sr. Joan looks looks at the common questions or dimensions of life as we know them in our daily lives – not answers as we’ve been given them – in an attempt to unravel their many meanings, to give them flesh, to honor their spiritual import now and here, in our time and in our own lives. By sharing the questions, doubts, and convictions of her own heart, Chittister explores the heart of faith itself and nurtures a spirituality that pushes readers beyond superficial questioning and unexamined faith.

Following a moving prologue on the nature of faith, Called to Question is broken into six parts that explore key themes – the inward life, immersion in life, resistance, feminist spirituality, ecology, dailiness. Within each theme is a wide array of topics that embody Sr. Joan’s life’s work as a sociologist, theologian, Benedictine nun, rights activist, and spiritual guide to countless people throughout the world.

Alive with raw energy of a journal and polished with the skill of a master storyteller, each chapter is an engaging dialogue between Sr. Joan and many different sources of wisdom about such topics as God’s existence and call, experience, struggle, justice, the role of women and men in society and church, living through doubt, and celebrating life. Called to Question is a rare and powerful invitation to look into the center of our own souls, name our questions about God and life, admit the worst, and pursue the best – even when we are unsure where that pursuit will take us.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Sanctity: The Task of Growing into God

We are freed by God’s love to live in the freshness of each new day. – Mary Ann Neevel

I’m not really sure what such a sentence means. “We are freed by God’s love to live in the freshness of each new day.” I’m far more inclined to think that it is in the freshness of each day that we are freed to experience, seek, become aware of God’s love. When we get stuck in yesterday — its disappointments, its guilt — we may miss entirely the reality of God’s ever-blooming love for us. Now and here. Joan Chittister, Journal, March 24

The first time I went to Rome, experienced the intrigues of the Curia, saw the politics of the system, watched the maneuverings of national clerical alliances, and realized how helpless women were in the face of all of it, I felt years of ecclesiastical condition go to dust under my feet. What was there left to believe in? Where was the Shangri-la of my religious dreams? How could I possibly continue to profess any commitment to any of this? It was all so human. It was all so venal. It was all so depressing.

“Don’t worry,” the old monk said to me. “You’ll be all right. Everybody wh comes to Rome loses their faith here the first two weeks.” Then, he smiled a small smile and added, “Then in the last two weeks, they put it back were it should have been to begin with: in Jesus.”

I grew immensely in those four weeks — out of spiritual infancy into spiritual adulthood. Out of adoration of the church, into worship of God whom this tradition had made accessible to me. T understand the value of the church, ironically, I had to understand its limitations. To workshop God I had to stop worshiping the things of God. “Open yourself to the Tao,” the Tao te Ching teaches, “then trust your natural responses and everything will fall into place.” Now I knew what that meant.

Growth in the spiritual life is a slow, circuitous route to the God within. It winds through devotion and disaster, through fidelity and sin to the point of self-knowledge and need, self-sufficiency and an unending desire for “the More.”

We are steeped in God, but it takes so long to realize that the God we make in our own image is too small a God on which to waste our lives. God is the energy of the universe, the light in every soul, the eternal kaleidoscope of possibility that surrounds us in nature. The face of God is imprinted on the face of every one we see. God is no one of them, and God is more than all of them, but without them, we miss all the tiny glimpses of God we’re being given on the way. “How easy it is to forget and disregard the divine beauty and light within ourselves and in the ‘other.’ Deborah Chu-lan Lee wrote. It’s a simple insight, but the very ground of the spiritual life, I think. I have seen God’s mercy and justice, felt God’s love, and heard God’s voice — but always in the other. And all of them have grown me beyond myself. I wrote, I’m not so sure that it’s “easy to forget” the Divine in the other. I think, given our formation in the potential pitfalls and essential weakness of matter, that it is more likely to be impossible to see it at all. But once we do, once we realize that we are surrounded by fragments of the Divine, life becomes luminous.

Consciousness of the presence of God, once it comes, changes the way we look at the world in which we live. Then, we begin to realize the fundamental truth of life: Some things are difficult, yes, but nothing is useless. Everything we do is preparing us to embrace the God of the universe who has already absorbed us into it. Every act of ours in return is nothing more than a gesture of gratitude for the great, swirling galaxy of people and events and blessings that we know to be our lives. Then, we become part of the ongoing creation around us. Then we make our own contribution to the fullness of life. The we grow into goodness itself.

“Every act of gratitude is incomplete,” Maria Harris wrote, “unless it issues in sending forth to do works that will make for justice.” The words resounded in my own life, but I also knew the futility of them. I wrote,

“One can never pay in gratitude,” Anne Marrow Lindbergh wrote. “One can only pay ‘in kind’ somewhere else in life.” I certainly know the truth of that. So much good has been done to me, so much support given, so much money invested that there is no way for me to pay anyone back for what I myself do not have. But I can pass it on, in whatever proportion I can. I can do for others what has been done for me. I can do for others what they cannot do for themselves. I can do what must be done if everyone everywhere is also to have a good life. Then it will be enough repayment to redound through the universe forever.

The one obstacle to the worship of the God of grace, the chief barrier to gratitude, lies in a stubborn refusal to grow beyond the limits of our lives. If we were poor, or rejected, or unsuccessful yesterday, we define ourselves as unable to be anything but poor and outcast and a failure today. We refuse to claim the power within us. And we blame the rest of the world for the prisons in which we place ourselves. We smother ourselves in resentment or remorse. But to grow spiritually we must dedicate ourselves to becoming more today than we were yesterday. We must grow beyond the wounds and memories we clutch to our breasts with claw-like care, afraid that if we relax our reminiscence of them, we can no longer justify our intentions never to become more than we are. “Many of us carry around old baggage for years,” Donnal Schaper’s excerpt read. I thought of all the things buried in me, but still burning, and I knew that she was right.

Table of Contents:

Prologue: The Journey from Religion to Spirituality

Chapter one: Religion: a finger pointing at the moon
Chapter two: Spirituality: Beyond the boundaries of religion

The Inward Life: A Discovery of the Obvious
Chapter three: The God within: who shall I say sent me?
Chapter four: The presence of God: the truth that sets us free
Chapter five: Prayer: every time I do get time
Chapter six: The call of God: an echo in the heart
Chapter seven: Insight: the alchemy of experience
Chapter eight: Solitude: the balm of the soul
Chapter nine: The self: the ground of our becoming
Chapter ten: Commitment: the place of change in the spiritual life
Chapter eleven: Balance: going through life whole and holy
Chapter twelve: Darkness: a way to the light

Immersion in Life: The Other Side of Inwardness

Chapter thirteen: relationships: to know and be known
Chapter fourteen: the gift of independence
Chapter fifteen: the beginning of wisdom

Resistance: The Gospel Imperative

Chapter sixteen: Justice: passion for the reign of God
Chapter seventeen: Power in the powerless: the courage to refuse evil.

Feminist Spirituality: The Coming of a New World

Chapter Eighteen: Society and women: the loss of soul
Chapter nineteen: Men and women: the discovery of the adult
Chapter twenty: the church and women: speaking in the name of God

Ecology: The Other Side of the Spiritual Life

Chapter twenty-one: nature: the voice of God around us
Chapter twenty-two: Creation: the process that never ends

Dailiness: The Gifts of the Mundane

Chapter twenty-three: Struggle: the search for God in darkness
Chapter twenty-four: Joy: the God who loves laughter
Chapter twenty-five: Sanctity: the task of growing into God