The oft-outspoken Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister is one of America's best known religious women. U.S. Catholic has this interview discussing her book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, about the spirituality of later life.
Chittister uniquely combines strong advocacy—especially on behalf of women in both church and society—with a contemplative spirituality rooted in the Benedictine tradition. One of her recent projects is “Monasteries of the Heart,” a web-based movement that shares Benedictine spirituality with contemporary seekers. Meanwhile, the Joan Chittister Fund for Prisoners distributes free spirituality materials in 90 prisons.
What led you to write about what you call “growing older gracefully”?
I was actually in my early 40s at the most when I first decided that, someday before I died, I wanted to write a spirituality of aging. I was a social psychologist, and I watched the older sisters in the community and noticed there was something really different about them. Everybody took it for granted that it was because they were older or holier or quieter, or that they had been formed in another period. But that wasn’t it.
I watched them and studied them with a lot of interest. It was always an unfinished work in the back of my head.
What was it that set those older sisters apart?
They ran the gamut from the ultimate holy character to the ultimate powerful woman. The first person I’m thinking of is Sister Pierre. She was this darling little Irish gnome, aged and ageless, and probably had very little education. She was what we called a “house sister.” There was a wisdom to her that made me wonder, “Where did all that wisdom come from?”
We were young and very much into formal education, as was the entire United States in the ’50s and the ’60s. After the Second World War, college populations were booming, and people realized you had to have a college degree if you were going to do anything in life.
But here was Sister Pierre, who had the heart of the whole community in her hand. All she did all day long was bustle around that house, taking care of everybody else. She was just a doll. Sister Pierre showed me the importance of making the distinction between wisdom and knowledge. I don’t think I had the words yet. I was too young myself, but it became clear to me.
On the other hand, there was Sister Theophane—brilliant; not smart, but brilliant—who could do anything, did it amazingly well, and did it very quietly but with a great sense of self. She had been in the community all her life, was clearly head and shoulders above most of the population intellectually, but somehow or other fit well in that community setting. The community recognized who she was and did very well with her.
What point am I making? She didn’t lose her effectiveness, her efficiency, or her intellectual reputation by virtue of her age. Being aged, or aging, did not put her on a shelf in any way whatsoever.
She had been the subprioress of the community and the principal of our girls’ academy—a leader all of her life. Then what did she do? She moved to the center of the slums in Erie, Pennsylvania and began working with African American families. Moved right into that neighborhood, never blinked, simply, with another one of our sisters, moved into this work and into day care for low-income families.
There’s a part of me that says retirement doesn’t have any meaning to nuns, but I would actually argue that it’s a false word for anybody in society. At the same time, I find our religious life can be a phenomenal model of a life that you live to the very end.
Read full review: Embracing life's second act: Getting older with grace (U.S. Catholic)