Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

September 22, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 15

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. A member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, she is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

A simple, doable, soul-changing project

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

I remember the scene well. It taught me an important lesson.

For a period of time, I drove from Cleveland, Ohio, to Erie, Pa., on a fairly regular basis, a distance of about 150 miles. Time after time, I put the car on automatic pilot and head for home, nothing but straight road between me and it.

Except for one thing. Every time I made the trip, I began to notice a solitary man standing back off the roadside at the edge of a ragged corn field, a flag in his hand, a sign by his side, one small camp chair open behind him. Trip after trip. Week after week. In cold rain and sleet, in hot sun and wind.

As the weeks went by, I began to slow down as I approached the area. I craned to see what he was selling. Nothing. I tried to read the sign. Weather worn. I looked for signs of a crowd, an event, something that would give me a clue to what he was about. No one.

One day, I simply turned around and went back, drove down the berm slowly and stopped.

He was not an evangelist obviously -- too quiet for that. He was not a policeman -- no uniform. He was not a traffic controller -- no cars. Just one thing stood out: He wore army fatigues and on the broomstick standard which he held in one hand while he waved with the other, flew a homemade flag with a peace sign on it. He himself, I realized as I got closer, had braces on his legs.

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In my mind, that single man, a veteran I presume, goes on waving every day of my life. It was his persistence, his dogged refusal to give up waving, his single-minded commitment to changing my mind that got me.

He stood in stark contrast to everything else my culture has ever tried to teach me about life: that big is better than small, that strong is more effective than weak.

Embracing that philosophy of life has made us a nation of grand corporate schemes and huge human fiascos.

We build skyscrapers 100 stories high. Small buildings like the corner store on which our lives depend, we never notice.

We count those corporations successful that are international in scope and everybody else as wannabes.

Large groups, we figure, are significant. Small groups are nice but, well, frankly, a bit pathetic.

The creation of a vast military machine proves how strong, how right, we are. Talking is weak, negotiating is worse.

What's big is important. What isn't is hapless. Numbers count. Money counts. One person alone against the world does not count.

No wonder we are all asking the same question: But what can I do? I'm powerless about all of this.

The answer the man on the road taught me, of course, is a simple one. In the first place, just do something. One thing. One small thing.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are people who think that's true and, like the single man in the cornfield, they have gotten my attention.

In other periods of history, this group would have made unlikely bedfellows.

The first is a small Jewish community that has always been against the oppression of Palestinians.

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The second is a small group of Muslims who are opposed to the fundamentalist definition of "jihad" as military struggle rather than as the interior struggle to be holy.

The third is a small group of Christians who have no doubts about the sins of Christianity against both these communities and, even more, a memory of Francis of Assisi, who in the midst of a Crusade against Egypt, crossed the battle lines to talk to Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

Francis, to convert the Egyptians, tried to strike a bargain: He would go into a fiery furnace and, if he came out alive, the Egyptians would convert to Christianity. Al-Kamil's answer to Francis was a gentle and a wise one. Gambling with one's life, he argued, is not a valid proof of one's God. Then, both of them wiser, he spared Francis' life and sent him on his way again.

Like Francis, these people have decided to do what their governments won't do. They are stepping across battle lines.

They are reaching out as friends to one another in formal, public ways. They are listening to the spirit in the heart of the other.

They call their project The October Surprise. The surprise is that the Jewish High Holy Days, the Islamic Month of Ramadan and the Christian feast of St. Francis of Assisi who opposed the Crusades and learned from an Islamic teacher, all come in October.

Even the heavens, it seems, are calling all of us to do penance, to be peaceful, to become the human community we are meant to be.

But how?

The group, after praying together themselves, encourages a public day of fast and prayer on Oct. 13 for all of us -- Christian, Muslim and Jew alike. They are asking congregations, organizations and families, to host members of the other communities in order to celebrate these common feasts together. They are suggesting that we all hold teach-ins to honor one another and to come to know our common teachings on peace, on kinship with the earth and all its creatures, on openness to the wisdom of others.

We could each, in addition, alone and together, celebrate these feasts by doing something to protect human rights, to save the earth, to promote peace: sign a petition, send a card to a senator or representative, support a group that is pursuing these issues.

We could even set out to learn from one another things that would bring us all to mutual respect.

It's so simply, so obvious, so real that it's a little embarrassing.

Each of us could do something to break the chains of passivity, to change the mindset of helplessness, to join in the process for universal peace.

This call to join an Oct. 13 fast and to create shared multi-religious local and regional events during the month was initiated by The Shalom Center, with The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. It has been endorsed by the National Council of Churches, the Islamic Society of North America, Pax Christi, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, an ad hoc committee made up of more than a hundred rabbis and other Jewish leaders, and a number of local and regional groups.

The question is: Why isn't the name of every diocese, every Catholic group and parish, every religious community and seminary in the country on the list?

The project is simple, it's doable, it's soul-changing. And it gives us something we can all do, if we will, both together and alone. It is one person waving in a field, perhaps, but who knows whose eye it will catch in the process.

From where I stand, it is simply not possible, in the light of something like this, to say "This is all too big for me. There is nothing I can do."

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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