I thought I’d share a few words from an inspiring book I’m reading for the second time. It’s called Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister. The book is about spiritual formation, using the rule of St. Benedict as a guide for encouraging spiritual and character growth.
The book was written twenty years ago and preceded books like The Divine Conspiracy (Willard) and After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (Wright) which also speak to what seems a growing conviction among many Christians, as Wright captures in his subtitle: why Christian character matters.
I don’t think a focus on character—or, how we live or the kind of people we are—is necessarily a new thing in the Church. I certainly remember from childhood and now know a lot of really nice, good, warm Christians, and I’m sure my parents and grandparents and so on could say the same. The conviction that God wants us to be good people is not new.
But the kind of disciplined focus on character growth I find in Chittister (and others) seems different. It feels like a slightly different brand of Christianity than the message of “grace alone” that, for me at least, encourages deep reverence for God and great humility in me but doesn’t necessarily offer a guide for becoming more like Jesus.
A version of “being Christian” that doesn’t emphasize trying to better yourself falls short for me, leaving me feeling like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain or “covenant” with God…like I’m missing out on a fuller, freer, richer experience of life…like God’s asked me to be something—an ambassador to use St. Paul’s language—and I’m not doing it.
Or like I haven’t really been captured by a vision of Heaven that I’m eager to point people to now…not just by telling them about it but by choices and gestures and habits and acts that might give people hope of what life could be now in part and what (I believe) it will be one day.
I guess that’s why I’m so drawn to works like this one that focus on our character and actions. I think of the Church as a sort of gift that God has given to the world. And to be a gift to the world feels to me like it demands more than personal convictions about who God is; beliefs alone don’t help the people around me very much, I don’t think.
I think to be a gift means giving something, contributing something—giving people a taste of the love of God and the reality of the-world-as-it-could-be-and-will-be (can I get away with using that many hyphens to make a single word like that?)
One of the ways the Church can do this is through living peacefully with one another. Here are some excerpts (from pp 188-190) from Chittister's book in which she encourages gentleness in our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the earth, painting a vision of nonviolent ways of living that rival John Lennon’s vision years ago.
She of course doesn’t encourage the absence of religion, though I’d imagine (sorry) Lennon might feel differently about Chittister’s brand of religion than the kind he was questioning. Perhaps not. But I think it’s evident that, for her, Christianity is not simply about right belief but about right action.
I think whether you are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist or whatever, this beautiful vision can speak to all of us:
“Imagine a world where children are not jerked down the supermarket aisle in the name of discipline.
“Imagine a world where young people are able to find good jobs without having to be a part of a war machine designed to destroy the earth in the name of defense.
“Imagine a world where other races and nations and peoples are not demonized to justify our militarism.
“Imagine a world where differences are resolved by force of character than by force of arms.
“Imagine a world where the peace of Christ with its prophetic honesty and reckless compassion and nonviolent resistance to evil is the rule of the country.
“Imagine a home where the members of the family do not shout at one another or steal one another’s possession or restrict one another’s movements or slap one another into subjection or bully one another into compliance or intimidate one another into domestic slavery.
“Imagine a home where being a little girl did not make a child a less promising being or giver her any less to hope for.
“Imagine a home where being a little boy did not mean having to prove himself with his fists or his muscles or his willingness to give and take pain.
“Imagine a home where both its women and its men could cry.
“Imagine a home that taught its children to evaluate the laws and actions of the country according to the laws of God: thou shalt not lie…steal…kill…covet…make false gods.
“Imagine a home where all these Benedictine values began to ooze out into the neighborhood and nation around it, and nonviolent resistance became a way of life. Imagine a nation where we would help one another to struggle for truth and justice but never, never with murder in our hearts or blood on our hands.
Also, I like this wrap-up comment: “nonviolence is not passive; nonviolence is simply nondestructive.”
If you are an optimistic, idealistic, romantic, lover of would could be (like me), maybe this moves you and causes you to wonder how you could be a part of making the world at least a little more like this.
And if you'd describe yourself as pessimistic, realistic, practical, or resigned to what is…maybe you too can find this vision compelling in some way, attainable in some part.
An addendum: out my open window I just heard my elderly neighbor get violently and vulgarly chewed out by some young adults over something to do with their dogs, calling him nearly every name in the book to the point that the insults were kind of laughably contracting each other. Except that it wasn’t funny, just sad and confusing. I don’t know the situation, but man…there’s got to be a better way. The vision above seems particularly relevant to me this morning...