Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister overcame enormous personal obstacles on the way to becoming a singular voice for renewal in the church and a powerful advocate for women. As a child she witnessed the terror of domestic violence and as a young member of a religious order she overcame the ravages of polio and the sometimes excessive disciplines of the era to become a heralded leader in her own community as well as a national leader among women religious. In the scene below, having reached the limits of accomplishments along the normal paths available to a member of a religious order, she faced an uncertain future. Brilliant and energetic and in her mid-50s, she wondered what tasks would fill the decades ahead. The self-doubt that she had overcome in other periods of her life surfaced again. In this case the community that had become her family provided her both the support and the freedom to move beyond that doubt. She went on to become, over the next two decades, a formidable presence on the international scene, teaching and advocating for a range of justice issues across denominational, cultural and faith boundaries.
By the time Chittister’s third and final term as prioress ended in 1990, she had occupied the leadership positions in most of the major organizations of women religious for which she might have qualified. . . Her peers had validated her vision, her talent, her leadership skills in countless ways. In addition, she had been an elementary school teacher, a high school teacher and, multiple times, a published author and in constant demand already as a speaker. She was 54 years old, enormously energetic, and she had not a clue what she would do with the rest of her life.
“I told my council before I left office that I just had no idea what I was going to do next.” Members of her council were puzzled. Why wouldn’t she continue doing what she had been doing even as prioress? Invitations to speak were arriving regularly, more than she could accept, and she certainly could go on writing. . .
Her uncertainty might have been due, in part, to her personality and a sense of insecurity that threaded as a theme through her life, even as she accomplished beyond anyone’s expectations. . .
She admits to a certain Irish fatalism and a wariness, that has ebbed over the years, about the fact that the big steps in her life – the elections, the doctorate, the influence she has had over people and events, the accolades – were never part of any overarching plan or career path when she left Seventeenth and Peach for the simple monastery on Ninth Street.
She said she never feels “quite right enough” about a talk or a book. She will tinker with speeches until the minute they have to be delivered. . . . During our conversation on this matter, she puzzled for a while over the question of why she felt inadequate. As we were about to move on to another topic, she said, “I just want to go back to that … there is one thing that I do think had something to do with forming that.” It had to do with her childhood. “I did everything to please my mother. If I could make my mother happy, that’s all I needed, just to know that something was good for her. She wanted me to do well in school, and I worked very hard at that. Even if school came easy to me, I didn’t take it for granted that it would come easy, any more than I take speaking for granted. I would bring home a report card with straight A’s and my mother – where it says parents’ comments – every year of my life, my mother wrote on that, ‘Joan can do better.’”
“‘Joan can do better.’ … I spent my whole life standing on tiptoe trying to finally get to the point where somebody would say, ‘You couldn’t do any better than that, Joan.’”
Had she gotten there yet? I asked.
“No, I’m still working,” she said.
That sense of inadequacy and the fear of letting people down was undoubtedly magnified at the end of her term as prioress. …
Joan described herself during that period as depressed and feeling disconnected. When she attended community functions she sat on the outer edge of things and almost never spoke. It would take her two years to begin to find a firm direction and become convinced of the encouraging promptings from Phyllis, the new prioress, who went to great lengths to keep Chittister engaged in the community, urging her to attend meetings and chapters. “I was trying to keep Joan with us and trying to lift her up and make her realize that she was part of us,” said Schleicher. . . .
In 1991, Chittister was giving a talk at an anti-nuclear weapons rally in the desert near Las Vegas at the same time as the legendary Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, a member of the Sisters of Loretto, was scheduled to speak at a retreat at the Mount. Tobin was a prototype, if such a term might be used here, of the kind of ministry that Chittister would eventually develop. She had been superior general of her order, a friend of Thomas Merton, international speaker and activist for peace and on behalf of women, past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She was best known, perhaps, as one of only fifteen women invited as auditors to the sessions of Vatican II . . .
Chittister was unable to return in time for the start of the retreat. When she finally arrived, midway through, she heard her own voice coming from the conference room. Someone had managed to get a video of her speech back to the Mount before she arrived.
The visitor, said Schleicher, had an insight into what was going on with Chittister and the community. As Chittister took a seat at the edge of the gathering, Mary Luke motioned toward the screen and asked if the community knew what to do with someone who possessed such gifts. She said if she were in the community she would want that person freed to speak to the wider world and to write and publish. With that, Schleicher said she got up and began speaking to Chittister, who recalls her coming toward her.
“I looked right at Joan,” recalled Schleicher, “and I said, ‘Do you hear what Mary Luke is saying? You are more than this community.” She commissioned her to “be free” to speak and to write. “Please, in our name, take us wherever you go. Be free.”
Copyright © 2015 by Tom Roberts. This excerpt originally appeared in JOAN CHITTISTER: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith, published by Orbis Books (2015). Reprinted here with permission.