Joan CHITTISTER.  Essential Writings.  Selected by Mary Lou Kownacki and Mary Hembrow Snyder, with an introduction by Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB.  Part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.   pp. 256.  $29.95.  ISBN 978-0-8146-8027-8.  Reviewed by Ann MICHAUD, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458

Joan Chittister: Essential Writings is packed with disclosive admissions, profoundly brilliant spiritual insights, amusing and thought-provoking witticisms, and enough wisdom to satisfy the appetite of any reader, from academic theologian to resolute spiritual seeker.  It is a text that demands action, “to give yourself for things far greater than yourself.” (118)  It also provides inspiration: “When all the stages of life have passed us by, these things alone remain: the spiritual treasure that stretches our souls to see what our eyes cannot, the remembrance of how beautiful life really is…and the love of those around us who make the journey gentle as we go.” (121)

With this volume, the most recent addition to the Modern Spiritual Masters Series by Orbis Books, Joan Chittister, OSB, joins such notables as Oscar Romero, Thomas Merton, Mohandas Gandhi, Karl Rahner, and The Dalai Lama.  The work is divided into three segments: Passion for God, Passion for Life, and Passion for Justice.  Excerpts from Sister Joan’s writings are taken from her more than 50 books, 700 articles and columns, and chapters in 100 additional works.  Her credentials (see the Introduction), impressive for their breadth and scope, explain why she is one of the most in-demand speakers of our time.

Personal involvement in the very heart of life gives Sister Joan a unique perspective.  As part of the Woman’s Global Peace Initiative in Syria, speaking with a group of Iraqi refugees, she apologized for the war on behalf of those Americans who were working to end the fighting.  “Suddenly, a woman pushed forward…‘I accept your apology,’ she said quietly.  ‘I accept your love.’”  Together they wept.  Sister Joan recounts, “I had never seen the faces of my victims before and they had not seen the face of the enemy who was not an enemy.  It was a profound moment for all of us.” (198)

The passion that burns within Joan Chittister is one that kindles fire in the reader. “God…is fierce but formless presence, undying light in darkness, eternal limitlessness, common consciousness in all creation, an inclusiveness greater than doctrines or denominations, who calls me beyond and out of my limits.” (46-47)  But Sister Joan does not stop with astonishing descriptives.  She challenges her readers to dig deep and stir up the fire within.  “Going into ourselves we see the whole world at war within us and begin to end the conflict.  To understand ourselves, then, is to understand everyone else as well.” (84) 

Dr. Joan Chittister is not afraid to articulate oft ignored truths. “The great figures of early Christianity centuries ago – Origen, Irenaeus, Anselm, Bernard of Clairveaux, and Aelred – believed that the womb of God is the Divine Feminine, and that without that awareness of the motherhood of God, as well as the fatherhood of creation, we will never know the fullness of God in our own lives.” (49)  She dares to raise uncomfortable questions concerning the church and women, the clerical sex abuse scandal and cover-up, the LCWR, restoration of the Tridentine Latin Rite Mass, greed, peace and nonviolence, oppression, loss, feminist spirituality, and the meaning of discipleship.  She poses such queries because “The function of the prophet is to expose whatever cancers fester beneath the surface so that what is loved can be saved while there is yet time.” (164)

Speaking out on behalf of women in the church is one of Sister Joan’s passions: a passion for justice.  Why?  “For the sake of the church, what women wanted had to be said in public because there was nowhere else for a woman to say it…no women ever get behind the closed doors [of the Vatican].” (165) 

Joan Chittister: Essential Writings exudes years of living life as fully and deeply as possible. It is instruction born of involvement and astuteness garnered from engagement with life.  This is truefrom the opening lines to the closing words of the book: “I have been enchanted by far too many falsehoods in life.  I would rather go on living the struggle than go comatose in the face of answers that are not true, were never true, cannot possibly be true.   Most of all, I have indeed found that the very process of examining them has made my life worthwhile.” (239)  Throughout, Sister Joan exhibits a profound reverence for the persons who must navigate their way through a morass of distractions to discover themselves and the Divine at the epicenter of their existence. Here is a compendium of a lifetime of lived truth, of learned courage, of sometimes painfully assimilated realities, and most of all of deep and intense “listening with the ear of the heart” to a God who is light and life and compassion and justice for all.  You cannot read this book and not be changed.